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Roger Clyne says if there's no music scene in Phoenix today, it may be partially his fault.
Clyne led the sensationally quirky Refreshments in the mid-'90s at the zenith of what some locals refer to as the "Mill Avenue conspiracy," when talented jangle-pop musicians ruled the bars of Tempe.
"Everybody could hit each other's houses with a rock," says Clyne, now leading Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers. "If I wanted to wake up Brent Babb [of Tempe peers Dead Hot Workshop], I could stumble over to his place and knock on the window."
But age and responsibility have caught up with him, the 35-year-old singer admits. "I wish I could say how [the scene] is now, but I'm too busy driving my kids to school," he says.
In the years since the Tempe scene faded from national prominence, the Valley has grown a hell of a lot larger and musical talent is now more scattered. The solidarity that was the hallmark of a decade ago is gone, replaced with a sea of fan indifference and small islands of interest only resembling real music "scenes."
And that's why these are strange days. Despite the lack of a strong local scene, Phoenix bands are picking up steam with national labels. A half-dozen area bands have inked deals with major firms in the last 18 months, and several more find themselves in promising negotiations. Judging purely by the number of bands getting label attention, you'd swear Phoenix was a major music shindig. Only it isn't.
Musicians here express frustration over the difficulty in drawing a crowd, or inspiring people to make the long treks to bars and clubs, no matter who's playing. They also complain that they can't draw new fans without opening for popular out-of-town bands or playing in strange lineups that combine punk with rap-rock bands or emo with jangle-pop outfits.
Screaming hard-core bands Other Voices and Financial Panther took the former approach last week, opening for Seattle's Blood Brothers in front of about 150 kids at a packed Modified Arts. They'd have been lucky just to bring in two dozen people alone. "[Playing for so many] is a pretty rare thing," laughs Eric Saylor, Financial Panther guitarist and singer.
And yet a geyser of fresh talent – punk bands, power-pop bands, hard-core bashers, rappers, DJs – is gushing from this desert landscape. "In a way, [the lack of scene pressure] is liberating, because you can do whatever you want. Because nobody cares," says Jim Adkins, the gifted songwriter for Jimmy Eat World, who along with promoter Charlie Levy announced recently that they'd be promoting Arizona bands with a new label of their own, which they call Western Tread Records.
Adkins will be heading to Tucson next month to record Reuben's Accomplice, where, the budding label executive points out, there seems to be less of a disconnect between music makers and their environment. "[Quirky, mariachi-influenced band] Calexico sounds like it's from the desert, but I can't say very many Phoenix bands sound like that," Adkins says.
But that's proved to be a good thing, according to Bob Chiappardi, president of gigantic New York management and marketing firm Concrete Marketing, which represents local successes Authority Zero and Opiate for the Masses. Chiappardi is an industry veteran with a vast network of contacts and clients who worked through the Roman candle days of Seattle in the early '90s.
Phoenix bears little resemblance to the ground swell in Seattle back in the day, Chiappardi says. "It got to the point where everyone wanted to sign a Seattle band.' One of the things I'm finding is there's not a Phoenix sound, but there are a lot of good bands."
You won't get much argument from Opiate for the Masses, Redfield, or Gift, accomplished local rock bands that find themselves under the gaze of watchful label A&R types.
Gift guitarist Brian Smyth says his band, which mixes tar-thick grooves with raw, shouted vocals, played its latest showcase gig for label execs two weeks ago. A year ago, Smyth says, there was only minimal interest. But a few signings and a few radio hits make a big difference, and with a demo and professionally made video in hand, life has gotten a whole lot easier.
"Once a few bands take off from a town, all the sharks turn their heads and try to see what else is going on around here," says Jim Kaufman, guitarist and keyboardist for Opiate for the Masses, a theatrical metal band negotiating a deal with Atlantic-distributed Lava Records, which signed Authority Zero last year.
Alfie Lucero of Redfield says he and his bandmates have learned how to take the feeding frenzy in stride: "[Label reps] ask what we sound like when they talk to us. We tell them we're a heavier Jimmy Eat World," he says.
"We've got exceptional music here but we're a large city still learning how to be a big city," says Tracy Lea, local music director and noontime DJ for rock station KZON-FM. Lea is a Phoenix native who remembers when late '80s hair-metal romance made the Mason Jar a hot commodity.
Now, Lea sees punk in Mesa, power-pop bands like Jed's a Millionaire and Haggis who often share the stage, and the latter-day Tempe rowdies – but no glue holding things together.
A few musicians, however, side with Adkins' sentiment, that it may be better to forgo cohesiveness and just focus on your own thing. "[Making it big] has little to do with how good the band is," says Chad Martin, drummer for rockers Fivespeed, which signed with Virgin Records last year, thanks to aggressive networking. "It has more to do with who you know. Had I just walked in there with our demo and said this was great, they would have said, Gee, great, whatever.' They don't even open CDs."
Roger Clyne knows that feeling, having been orphaned suddenly by Mercury Records when the label changed presidents. But Clyne, clearly dreamy-eyed about the old Mill Avenue days, isn't just sitting around bopping along with his kids to the Refreshments' theme to the animated series King of the Hill. Even the Peacemakers are getting in on the new patchwork spotlight toward Phoenix.
"We've had a few offers," he says. "Generally, they're not the sort of quality of what we need to hear. We need enthusiasm and belief. There's no reason to partner with someone who's unenthusiastic because I don't want to be put in a position where my art is only judged to what it contributes to a bottom line."
Who really needs a scene to come to that conclusion?
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