The 20-year-old Cullen, who recently added a blond, skunk-like streak to his dark locks, awkwardly stirs his Rice Krispies. The cereal is in one of those red plastic cups you see everyone clinging to at a kegger. I never see him take a bite. He seems uncomfortable. In fact, the singer-songwriter always acts kind of discomfited, especially when he performs original songs in a Daniel Johnston-esque style under the Foot Ox moniker. One thing I've learned about Tempe's sterling musicians — many of whom share the home with Cullen — is that onstage awkwardness seems to be a subconscious code of conduct. If you're a member of this scene and appear too put-together and poised, people will be suspicious.
This is in no way an insult. (Trust me, I've never been a pillar of certainty and buoyancy.) It's just that underneath this collective cloak of awkwardness that shrouds the tight-knit community near Arizona State University, there is a percolating geyser of musical talent ready to become the next '90s Mill Avenue. The thing is, this group of Tempe artists, which is led by the very talented Cullen, couldn't care less about "making it." Unlike the rock-and-show mentality spearheaded by the Gin Blossoms and the Meat Puppets, this new generation is totally content to create CD-Rs and tapes for friends rather than record executives.
Foot Ox just released CD and vinyl versions of It's Like Our Little Machine, Cullen's second album in as many years. It's hard to neatly summarize the album's sound in generic genre descriptions, but terms that come to my mind include broken-folk or singer-songwriter with a twist. The project features Cullen playing acoustic guitar and singing in a frantic and infectious style about themes amassed from his dreams, many of which he documents on a tape recorder when he wakes up each morning. The album also contains a communal vibe, with plenty of collaboration in the form of small instrument percussion, background vocals, and found sounds from prerecorded tapes scavenged from thrift stores. The joint efforts aren't unusual. Most people who perform music in the East Valley neighborhood — which is loosely bounded by Roosevelt Street to the east, Hardy Drive to the west, University Drive to the north, and 13th Street to the south — play in everyone else's projects, borrow gear, and sometimes even build instruments together.
Foot Ox's record is part of the Distant-Colony catalog, a three-month-old label run by Cullen and his housemates/fellow musicians Bri White, Kelly Sheridan, Matt De La Torre, and Jen McMaster. About the label's modest beginnings, Cullen says, "I think I can speak for all of us by saying our goal is not elitism, superstardom, or to paint an image for ourselves. Music isn't a fashion statement and it doesn't make you superior to anyone else."
Cullen is greatly influenced by Sheridan, of Splinter Cake, as well as the '80s/'90s American folk group Neutral Milk Hotel, Public Radio International's This American Life, and the recordings of Lord Buckley, a beat poetry weirdo who once retold Biblical stories in street jive. "Art and music help you feel better about your own life, and even on a small scale like this, it means a lot to us," Cullen says. "None of us have very much money, and we put a lot of work into the things we release."
Even before I entered the Wilson Street home, I could tell the household wasn't rolling in dough. I noticed one mattress by the front door and another in the yard; both were probably slept on the night before. Inside the room where Cullen and I hang out are the bare-minimum possessions. There are two single beds that look like Army cots, an orange bass drum that doubles as a nightstand, and wrinkly T-shirts spilling out of a suitcase. It's definitely not Park Avenue living.
It seems everybody in this neighborhood who dabbles in music lives like this. None whom I know personally attend college and some don't own cars. Instead, many work tear-your-eyes-out-with-boredom jobs to support their music habits. Cullen doesn't go to school, but he does drive his own vehicle and works in downtown Phoenix sorting computer parts for oil refineries and nuclear power plants. When area folks like James Fella, the members of My Feral Kin, or Cullen's cousin Nick Eymann of one-man band Children's Crusade aren't working day jobs, they'll perform in their friends' living rooms during open-to-the-public (but not well-promoted) house shows at places like the Bike Saviours Co-op and The Manor.
Despite the sheltered existence, a necessity because of the lack of funds, the sound is constantly evolving. Check out any show or recording by singer-songwriter-grounded acts like French Quarter, Hell-Kite, or Foot Ox and you'll never hear the same thing twice. It's also important to note that these hard-working musicians aren't putting out stuff just to put it out. For example, Children's Crusade has played in front of an audience only a few times this year. And Cullen says he needs a break and won't be performing another show until around Thanksgiving.
Though in the middle of what seems like a creative nexus, Cullen does have a sense of the special-ness transpiring in his world. As he continues to clutch the red cup while stirring the soggy cereal, which now looks like Spackle, he says, "I feel kind of spoiled when I go other places. I was just talking to my roommate Matt [De La Torre], who spent time in West Virginia. Some kid there was telling him how he was gay and that he was stuck in this town with nothing to do. Matt asked him if there was anything to do and he said, 'Drugs.' So I'm thankful for the amazing group of people in this neighborhood."