For most Arizona bands, the arc they can expect their careers to take is not unlike that of the Sciannas. Take a bunch of transplanted musicians, in this case Connecticut-bred brothers Fran and Dan Scianna, and thrust them into a mystifying music scene where it takes months, even years, to hook up with the right musicians, or at least a bunch of guys who'll quit watching the season opener of Friends long enough to rehearse. The transplants play whatever acoustic gigs they can and scout musicians, as Fran and Dan did, until they found guys like drummer Dan Jewell who could help them achieve what they had formulated in their minds to be the "Sciannas sound."
Achieving this telepathy requires more patience and social graces than it does to merely accumulate friends, but when the band is finally ready to play out, a healthy percentage of pals from work and genuine chums will certainly come in handy. Early shows are well attended, thanks to persistent promotion and the fabled friend-of-a-friend attendance booster. After a few months of healthy shows, they book a show at a new club and notice there are only a dozen-plus people there. Two of them want you to hurry up so they can sweep the floors. The draw starts to dwindle. Friends of friends are no longer friends. Fans move away without e-mailing. Noncommittal types find commitments with someone who wants them to stay home to watch the season finale of Friends. It's a vicious cycle.
Some give up right there. Fran and Dan Scianna, however, felt there had to be a more methodical way of accruing and maintaining an audience. They formed a pact with other bands in a similar situation and called it the Commission.
Priceless Inn, 5014 South Price in Tempe
Perform every Wednesday night with other members of the Commission
"The idea had been tossed around for a few months," says Fran Scianna. "We'd played together on different bills with [bands like] No Lily and Initial J and came to the same conclusion that no one's going out to the shows. If we all supported each other, people would see other musicians in the audience and pretty soon they would start to bring other people."
If this sounds like a case of performers performing for other performers, at least there's none of that bitchy "me me me" attitude that pervades the open-mike crowd. You won't see other musicians being stingy with their applause at a Commission show, or someone tuning up in the back while another band plays. Commission bands seem to have discovered the act of supporting another band to be as enriching as being on stage. Unlike open-mike acts, Commission bands have plenty of shows under their belt. It isn't performing that's the novelty. It's performing to receptive audiences that's the rarity here. Even mediocre bands can command large audiences -- surely you've seen that happen. It's got more to do with the transient nature of our state and an atrophying of clapping muscles, which most Phoenicians suffer from, the audience equivalent of shoegazing.
The Sciannas have just finished conducting their most recent Commission meeting at Chaser's in Scottsdale. The meeting takes place the first Tuesday of every month and lasts roughly 45 minutes. There are no dues and no reading of minutes, just an informal pledge to support each other's bands. In attendance this night are members of No Lily, Initial J, a ska band from Cincinnati called the Busticles and singer-songwriter Bob Hermes.
The topics for discussion include the solicitation of other bands, promoting gigs and the idea of making the Sciannas' regular gig at the Priceless Inn in Mesa a sort of informal Commission night for musicians. The brothers say the attendance for that gig has jumped from five to 10 to 20 to 30 in the past few weeks.
As for suggestions on how to make their shows more eclectic and experimental, someone suggests Commission bands invite other Commission band members to walk up and perform a song. A commonplace occurrence in most music scenes, it happens at blues clubs whenever there's another guitarist or a horn player in the audience. It seems strange that it has to be put forth as a suggestion. Then, you realize you have trouble recalling the last time a local rock band did just that.
Fran Scianna remembers it being that way back East. "In Connecticut, there were no clubs, so you either played in Massachusetts or New York. We played a lot in New York or Boston -- it's so competitive there, there's not a willingness to work together amongst bands," he says. "Here, you have bands from all different parts of the country looking for a cohesive scene. The Commission shows, already it's built up camaraderie. That hasn't been a problem of bands vying for the best slot on a given show because we rotate bands and encourage people to get there to the shows early, check out the opening band and stay for the whole show. That's a pet peeve of many of the bands I've talked to. They play with a group whose people evacuate the premises the minute their set is done. Even the group takes off. So there's no cross-pollinating of audiences."
Jen Powelson, singer for Initial J, agrees. "I know several musicians who've moved to either San Francisco or San Diego because they hated the scene here," says Powelson. "They felt they weren't being appreciated by audiences. I've also had people tell me the way to draw bigger crowds is to be a cover band that plays originals instead of the other way around."
Last year, Initial J played the side stage at the Goo Goo Dolls' Cricket Pavilion concert but has seen attendance at its sporadic shows slip since returning after a long layoff to record a new CD. "We used to play at the Mill Avenue Brewery about twice a month, but in the time off Mill, we lost a lot of people to the new smoking laws." In a way, Initial J is as lost in the changing music scene as the Sciannas were coming to it for the first time. Powelson hopes that hooking up with a support group like the Commission will help put them in touch with people who will go for their new, Sublime-meets-Jack Johnson sound and maybe forget their "cookie cutter pop Train/Matchbox 20 sound" of two years ago, when they got some local airplay with a song called "Mullet," for which they donned wigs at their shows. This is what the Germans would call "make show."
While the Commission works through its growing pains, it can look to the Shizz as a logical next step. What began as a Web page with directions to a New Year's party and a link to some cool shows that night evolved into a calendar that lists whatever cool shows or band events are taking place every night. The man who maintains theshizz.org, the collective's Web site, is Donald Martinez, onetime member of Fatigo, now a member of Budget Sinatras and the Winners. Those last three bands are among the 20-plus listed on theshizz.org home page and are among the dozen on The Shizz Presents . . . This, an upcoming CD compilation of 12 shizzilating bands.
But according to Martinez, the Shizz doesn't hold meetings, have dues or even a bowling team. "Basically, it's just a loose organization, a way for people to hear about other good local bands and the venues they play in. People can register their support for the bands on the message board as well as at the shows. Last year we were getting 100,000 hits a month," says Martinez. "Now with the CD, it's something like 800,000."
"I came to Phoenix from Alamogordo, New Mexico, with Mike Montoya of Fatigo," he continues, "and it was difficult to meet other bands who would play with us. The fact that we were named Travolta may have had something to do with it. But the Shizz Web site has made it easier for bands to hook up. A punk band like Hot Fought Cold can get a band like World Class Thugs, an arty folk-based outfit, to play for a punk crowd that might not normally go to see them, or a band that doesn't know Ross at Hollywood Alley has an in if they can get on a show with another Shizz band."
What makes the Shizz biz work has a lot to do with a little quality control. Years ago, a local Arizona rock coalition (that will go unnamed for fear they will read this and decide to come back) put together a daylong festival of humongously shitty bands. Says Martinez: "I can't list a really shitty band on the site or we'd lose credibility. I get approached by some people and it's an attitude thing. I tell them I need to hear their music and they're like forget it.' Once I checked out a band that wanted to be on the site and after their set I told them I liked their music and they were suddenly disdainful, uninterested."
Clearly, a close-knit music scene isn't for everyone, especially those with world domination cards on the table. And while every track on the Shizz CD is not tailored to please everyone, it's not as much of a horror show as some other local comps -- where people suck six ways to Sunday but paid their portion to get pressed on the CD.
Perhaps the apogee of where local music, furious organization and rapturous fan support can all co-exist is the AZPunk.com site, the joint venture and expensive hobby of three seasoned punks, Michah "TP Stank" Allen of West End Crooks, Bryan Sandell of Last Action Zeroes and Chris Lawson, who started totalpunkradio.com. "AZ Punk Radio is a sister station to Total Punk Radio, which is a massive computer jukebox from around the world of old school punk from early '80s to emo. It actually takes requests," says Allen. "If someone wants to hear an old JFA track, it selects one and puts it at the top of the list. We're really just a bunch of geeks happy for the chance to geek out."
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"It is a community Web site which has a resource section, which comes in handy for out-of-town bands trying to book some local shows. The site is totally DIY," says Allen.
Unlike the Commission or the Shizz, which blend disparate musical styles together, the uniformity of punk guarantees a built-in audience for its site, its free 'zine and its compilation CDs.
Both the Shizz comp and the Commission comp will try to give the AZPunk.comp Volume 1 CD a run for its retail money. In something of a marketing coup, the punk album has been in the top three of Zia Record Exchange's local music chart for the past 11 weeks -- apparently no one can pass up 30 bands for $3. Pop, however, is a more fickle fancy -- will the Shizz's quality control win over a dormant sector of the listening public that doesn't know what it wants? Ditto for the Commission bands who are not yet collectively represented by a CD? Among the points raised at the Commission's meeting was a proposed mobile live recording of all the bands at Chaser's sometime in the near future.
Of course, attendance for that show will be mandatory. We hope, anyway.