Just recently my band, The Swan Thief, put out the first of a series of albums to be released throughout the year. With more than four years of songs compiled and no proper recordings, we figured the best way to release the songs was to put an album out each season, the songs somehow corresponding to that time of year.
I was mildly disturbed by people’s actions and reactions to it after they either got a free download card at our show, or were directly e-mailed a link by me. I wasn’t disturbed by what people actually thought of the music. Whether they thought it good or bad didn’t matter. In fact, the best response I’ve ever gotten was from none other than the local eclectic art hero Eric Greening, who stated that our music “took him to other planes.” I felt honored not only to have a listener like Eric at our show, but also that he actually thought about our music critically on an emotional and cognitive level.
Unfortunately, Eric is an exception to the general lack of critical thinking at shows in San Luis. Granted, our songs do happen to be 10 minutes on average, but am I, and a few like Eric, alone in the need for music that I can fully disappear into?
San Luis is supposed to be a college town, filled with a decent number of young people who know art when they see or hear it. So where are the edgy bands that are supposed to blow my mind every time I see them? Is there a serious lack of genuine creativity—or even potential for it? Or has some sort of monopoly developed in which only support for the comfortable and the easily accessible exists?
Before we put out the album, I thought a major reason for the drought of local music fans had to do with a general, monetarily stingy attitude toward hearing or acquiring new music. After all, I have witnessed examples where we’ve opened a grim and soulless show at SLO Brew for a ridiculously overpriced $12, then to find a packed house upon playing a completely free show at the SLO Art Center a week later. Since we put out the album for free, I began to ponder the other possible reasons for the drought. You might say that I’ve proved myself wrong in suspicions of a drought; after all I just stated that we have played to a packed room. Unfortunately, these are rare events that only occur if shows are strategically placed on a Saturday for free, when there is already a lack of anything to do in San Luis. If anything, this really shows that attention is paid to music only if it is convenient.
I started thinking about the shows that actually do well around here, the types of music played at them, and the demographic of people who attend. The most popular tend to be reggae, folk-bluegrass, singer-songwriter, and anything with singing for 98 percent of the song. Oh, and I forgot to mention the catchall phrase “indie-folk;” what that means exactly, I have yet to understand. I’ve gone to most of these types of shows and observed countless acts of texting, heavy smart-phone social networking, talking over music, dancing, and ingestion of profuse amounts of alcohol. I’ve never really observed much listening of music occurring, with the exception of an outlier or two. It’s probably obvious why these shows have so many attendees; the music tends to be extremely simple and is well suited for socializing.
There are plenty respectable and creative musicians who play the above genres. The problem is that those artists did it well before any of these local bands, and did it 300 times better. I could go to one of these shows, become completely distracted by any of the above activities for 20 minutes, and come back, never feeling like I missed anything. Most of the music around here doesn’t demand full attention of the listener. On the other hand, if I did this at an Explosions in the Sky or Boris show, I doubt I’d ever come back and find myself intrigued like those bands intend. At an Explosions in the Sky show, the entire experience is important from the start. It’s one big piece of art that the band wants you to become lost in with them, forgetting everything else but what the sound is making you feel for one hour of your life. Boris, from what I’ve experienced, tends to generate walls of sound that surround you, making you feel everything they produce throughout your whole body. Boris makes you pay attention. Explosions asks you to. Both are equally rewarding for everyone involved.
Maybe everyone is too worried about the bit of discomfort that comes with constructive criticism, or too lazy to put in the hours required for solid creativity. Most of the bands around here stick with the familiar to attract fans. But blame is then on the listeners. Perhaps the fans are guilty of wanting an easy, comfortable fix and the musicians are guilty of fearing uncharted ground, afraid to inject truth into their music.
My first class at Cal Poly was with Dr. Craig Russell. He asked us why we all enjoy some of the songs that we do, and to say that we simply liked something or to give some vague statement like “because I can dance to it” didn’t work. He wanted us to think critically about what we were hearing and describe the experience emotionally and intellectually. As soon as I tried to tap into that plane of thinking, the next time I heard a song, I was no longer simply listening. I had tapped into an area of thought that for me was more stimulating than any physical substance I could take. In a sense, I had learned to be honest with myself about the music I was experiencing.
We should all practice this honesty, both with ourselves and with our fellow musicians. It will only create better art in the end, and everyone will benefit. ∆
Chase Hall is a local musician, a biology major at Cal Poly, and Arts Editor Anna Weltner’s sweetheart. He can be reached via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org.