We Heart Phoenix: Four Love Letters to the Valley's Music Scene

Gracie's Tax Bar owner Grace Perry had a moment at Arizona Federal Theatre.
Gracie's Tax Bar owner Grace Perry had a moment at Arizona Federal Theatre. Charles Barth
It's a powerful little slogan you might have seen on bumper stickers around town: "Love Phoenix or Leave Phoenix." Which is to say, you can either be one of the many people to come and (promptly) go in this city, or you can adapt and thrive in this weird and wild desert.

For plenty of people, the arts and music scene has made staying a viable (if not still challenging) option. In turn, these individuals have helped define so much of the Valley's cultural significance over the years. Here are a few such desert dwellers sharing what makes Phoenix worthy of their adoration. 

Ryan Avery, Owner of Related Records

"I recently started watching I'm Dying Up Here, which is about the Los Angeles comedy scene in the '70s. And I got to thinking about how so many people just place L.A. on this mantle, but there's so much tired shit there. When I lived in L.A., I worked three jobs and played maybe one show the whole time.

"I had this idea for a musical after I had moved there, and everyone I wanted to work on it was like, 'Do you have a venue' or 'What's your budget?' People won't work for free in L.A. and you have to book a year in advance. But in Phoenix, if you have an idea, you can just do it. You just start making stuff and playing shows — it's a place you can be poor and do some cool things.

"I remember a time in 2008 or 2009, everyone moved here because of AJJ. But they weren't playing in some folk-punk scene, and they just ended up playing with a bunch of weirdos. Anyone can do anything — that's why Phoenix is cool. No one's going to [care] until you just do it."

Mike Durham, Buyer at Zia

"I moved here in 1993 from upstate New York, and I remember people here just always made stuff happen, back from the days of JFA playing shows and bringing in bands like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys to the DIY scene in Tempe. It still feels like such a great place to start a band.

"You have kids now that are being brought up by these same weird and wonderful things, these second- and third-generation punk rockers. You had kids whose parents were involved in the Phoenix scene, and then even those parents who weren't and were raised by '70s pop, and you put them together and that's where you get all this weirdness right now.

"When you're 20 or 21, you can do what you want; go see these shows and then go home and smash your guitar with a cymbal. There's no way of knowing how influences will seep in with some of these classic Phoenix bands. And it's so much easier to find things and to be influenced in the internet age. The youth will always discover this stuff [like JFA and Sun City Girls], and then they'll fuck it up in the best way possible."

Grace Perry, Owner of Gracie's Tax Bar

"The Phoenix scene is just so embedded within me. I have so many memories seeing shows at Modified [Arts], and then later playing there myself with bands, which was one of the biggest 'I made it' moments. But now I'm old, and I get to see all these 20-somethings do stuff. Someone in Nanami Ozone actually works with me. It's just so good to see it from the outside of all this.

"People in Phoenix are passionate to be passionate. You go to Los Angeles or Chicago, and they'll always say, 'I have to play this venue or I have to be on this record label.' There's just such a high level of community support here. I had a girlfriend who moved here from Portland, and she said they were all so pretentious, but everyone here [Phoenix] is so welcoming and giving.

"Like, I remember eight years ago, seeing Postal Service at Comerica [Arizona Federal Theatre], and my husband took my picture with my eyes all glazed, and he says that's documentation of the day he fell in love. I get to share that because of Phoenix music, because we have such deep roots here. I have a ton of pride, and wouldn't be the same without this scene."

Blaise Lantana, Music Director at KJZZ

"One of the things that I love most about Phoenix is the variety of the venues. You can go to The Nash or Mesa Arts Center or the Musical Instrument Museum and see so many different things. And there's so many individual towns, and they're all doing something to support the arts and music. In a place like New York City, it might be bigger and have more things, but they're often just the same.

"I've lived in places where there's real hostility and competition between musicians, and here there's so much camaraderie. Even more, we have a lot of community colleges: GCC has a great guitar system, and MCC has a great jazz program. People in these colleges are playing gigs all over town, and some musicians will even go back to community college to learn. And all of these people are staying, playing and teaching right here, and since we have this system, musicians can get jobs and support their playing careers.

"I remember the oil crash in Texas in the '80s: Oil goes down and the scene goes down. I don't know what's going to happen [after the pandemic], but I bet people will still be here playing."

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Chris Coplan has been a professional writer since the 2010s, having started his professional career at Consequence of Sound. Since then, he's also been published with TIME, Complex, and other outlets. He lives in Central Phoenix with his fiancee, a dumb but lovable dog, and two bossy cats.
Contact: Chris Coplan