In Southern California, a place of seemingly limitless sub-regionalism and cultural density, it seems as though every city, county, and housing development has served as the epicenter of some well-documented "movement" in commercial music. From Silver Lake's anti-folk revolution in the '90s to Orange County's ongoing pop-punk apocalypse to South Central's gangsta-rap glory days, there's a story everywhere you look.
Well, maybe not everywhere. Having grown up in the so-called Inland Empire, I can tell you with utmost certainty that nothing interesting or artistically momentous ever happens in that ironically named sprawl of strip malls, cheap housing, and desert. Well, unless it's a three-day music festival in the middle of nowhere that's called Coachella.
Or so I used to think. As it turns out, there's a ripe little musical scene in the Inland Empire that far exceeds the non-existent expectations I had from a childhood misspent there. Are we looking at the next Seattle? Eh. But we could be looking at the next Tempe.
Clubhouse Music Venue in Tempe
Rufio is scheduled to perform on Friday, February 5.
Before we name names, let's define our boundaries. The Inland Empire, if you weren't already aware, is that roughly Ohio-size thing that stretches from the Arizona border to, you know, the nice stuff. It's vast and — for the entirety of my childhood, at least — vastly boring.
Yeah, I know — everyone likes to badmouth their youthful haunts. And, sure, compared to the Dakotas and other isolated outposts of rural America, the Inland Empire was excitement incarnate. But compared to the rest of SoCal, it sucked. My mom used to call it "the armpit of California." Live-music-wise, it was a lifeless nitrogen plume — except for the time The Fixx performed at the local college. I almost shit my pants when that happened.
After I moved away, the place seemed to generate a little long overdue juice. David Lowery left Camper Van Beethoven and formed Cracker with Johnny Hickman in the I-10 town of Redlands. Farther east, in Palm Desert, Josh Homme formed Queens of the Stone Age and ushered in something called "desert rock" (possibly Homme's pet name for himself, since any mention of "desert rock" is invariably linked to him).
Recently, a new cadre of rock and hip-hop acts is making the Inland Empire look, if not Brooklyn-esque, then at least like the moderately fruitful artistic suburb it should be.
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One of the bands is Rufio, a pop-punk quartet that fits squarely in the SoCal tradition of melody-oriented party-band fun. Yes, their rebel posturing is mostly bullshit (same with OC's Offspring). But consider this: They're from Rancho Cucamonga, a bedroom community with great weather, decent schools, and plenty of quality Mexican food. That these guys are even pretend-rebelling is a minor miracle.
For the Inland Empire, I'm also claiming Hockey, a fine New Wave revival band that formed at the University of Redlands in the early part of the decade before relocating to Oregon. Broadly reminiscent of The Strokes, Violent Femmes, and Lou Reed, they killed it as the opening act for Band of Skulls during the latter's winter tour — to such an extent, in fact, that they're getting higher billing than BOS at Coachella this spring.
Do these and other unsigned-but-signable IE bands constitute a true "scene"? Somebody thinks so. Two years ago, the Denmark-based record label Musikministeriet set up an office in Redlands to cultivate IE talent. "The focus (for music) has always been on L.A. and San Diego," a label executive told the local newspaper. "We feel it's time to be part of the movement (here)."
Musikministeriet may yet prove to be a cheese pastry smuggling front, but until that day, it means that the IE is a musical force to be reckoned with. So shove it, Silver Lake. And South Central, you'd best be on your way.