Musical categorization sucks. Most musicians agree on that. Categorizing takes music from a three-dimensional, soulful, original plane and shoves it into the crude box that language affords: post-punk, emo pop, garage. Yet sometimes you can’t get around it.
When the Seattle grunge movement exploded across the nation, bands that didn’t sound like carbon copies of each other at all—Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana, to name a few—were suddenly all pushed under the same umbrella. Yet they did, in fact, all possess a common thread of sound—a sound of dark, powerful teenage suburban angst. It could even be argued that because they all played in the same self-contained scene, they probably had more than a little influence on each other. So when Everett True, a British journalist for Melody Maker, christened the music of the Seattle movement “grunge,” the term made sense … and it stuck.
Right now in Utah, hundreds of bands are covering every single genre imaginable, from urban dance (Cosm) to emo (Hudson River School, who just toured the West Coast with Superdrag) to math metal (Form of Rocket, who just got signed to Some Records in New York City, The Kill) to punk (Thunderfist) to stoner rock (Hammergun). Among the myriad of exceptionally talented and original bands that are springing up like wildfire on a baked desert mountain range, a core of bands that boast overlapping members and have almost certainly influenced each other are defining a sound that is unique to Salt Lake and the nation. They’re packing shows and creating a buzz of excitement.
The Wolfs, Red Bennies, Starmy, Erosion, The Downers and several more local bands all have a certain sound that unites them while retaining their unique approach and identities. The sound is a kind of raw, sassy, sexy one—a kind of garage rock sound, without being straight garage. It’s hard to put a finger on, but then again, it’s that original. The broad category of “garage” fits for convenience’s sake, and is just about the closest anyone will come to defining it until some jet-set British rock journalist coins a digestible phrase.
Garage rock has been around for decades, and started as pretty much a necessity among musicians in the ’50s and ’60s who wanted to be in bands but couldn’t afford thousands of dollars worth of equipment, like say, the Rolling Stones. A new sound was born. It was a lo-fi sound developed from poverty-stricken bands’ inexpensive, basic amps, their echoey garages and family rooms, their $5 mics. It was a raw, noisy sound that was loose but not sloppy, raw but not grating, visceral, edgy and above all, catchy.
The sound, look and feel of garage rock was typified by bands like The Seeds, The Animals and the Holliers and later, Iggy and the Stooges, Australia’s The Scientists, The Cramps, The Fall and The Germs. Along with the garage sound came an ethos: a grassroots, do-it-yourself (DIY) and to hell-with-the-major-labels attitude that in part was the precursor to the prominent indie/underground rock movement of the past decade-and-a-half.
Currently, garage rock is going through a revival of sorts nationally. You’d have to be myopic to have missed The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Hives and even The Vines all over the cover of Spin and Rolling Stone this month. But Salt Lake garage bands, far from simply reflecting and copying current national garage rock trends, have been doing their own brand of garage rock for years without any outside encouragement. Starmy and The Wolfs came into being several months before the garage rock hype broke on the national scene. Is that a coincidence?
“We do have a lot of cutting-edge music here,” says Mike Sartain, lead singer/bassist/guitarist for local glam-garage sex rockers Starmy. “Trends of course carry into the scene here, but most of the music here isn’t categorizable.”
Dave Payne, lead singer/guitarist of local scene veterans Red Bennies, thinks the idea of Salt Lake being ahead of the trends is somewhat of a misimpression. “If slick and glitzy ’80s soft rock was in the charts, you’d be able to find five groups in town and write an article identical to this one,” he says.
Scheering agrees and disagrees. “Salt Lake City has been making top-quality music of all genres for years. SLUG’s Localized shows prove that consistently. But I do think that we in Salt Lake City are truly ahead of the trends.”
Instead of regurgitating the sound and look of original ’60s garage rockers, Salt Lake bands have struck out on their own. They’ve snaked essential elements of the raw, noisy, moxie-like live sound that defines garage rock and devilishly stirred it together with a spice of glam (Starmy), new-wave (The Downers), mod (Red Bennies), classic rock (The Wolfs) and straight-up rockin’ rock (Erosion).
“Starmy is more melodic than regular garage rock, we’ve always wanted to be kind of pretty, not so heavy, scratchy and raw,” says Sartain. “I think The Wolfs and Starmy are closest to that ’60s garage rock sound, but their songs are five minutes, ours are two-and-a-half, and the songs are put together differently.”
Scheering perceives a definite Salt Lake “sound” that is partly garage and partly not.
“Erosion has a few trashy garage rock songs, but like the Downers, we like to be all over the rock & roll map. … The Downers, The Wolfs, the Red Bennies, Starmy, Alchemy~, Redd Tape, Erosion and all the others are making more interesting, vibrant and original music that more closely defines the Salt Lake ‘sound’ than the Salt Lake bands that have gotten signed to major labels recently.”
“The Downers definitely have lots of garage influence,” says Mike Snider, Kilby Court’s main booking agent and bassist for The Downers. “I think it’s a very fitting term for us, but at the same time, we hope we are not limited to this only. I think we are a solid rock band and our influences come from many genres of music.”
Eli Morrisson, lead singer for The Wolfs, understandably ducks from genre categorization as well. He says, “Wolfs are not garage rock, we’re Wolfs rock. I’ve always found that in any musical movement, the original material that defines the movement is always the best stuff. Then you’ve got all the barrel-dregs imitators left over. To me, though, ‘garage rock’ sorta implies stuff that has a lesser emphasis on glitzy production and a greater emphasis on energy and live feel. Garage rock is The Doors’ ‘Break on Through’ and is not ‘Touch Me.’”
To Payne, the essential heart of garage is soul. “I think that in retro and modern garage music, the rootsy, down-home, and most importantly, soulful and expressive elements [of the music] are readily apparent, whether it sounds old, new, rough or not,” he says. “I’ve heard really rough soul in very fine Wolfs recordings and slick Starmy recordings that don’t betray their four-track roots. I like to think Red Bennies’ soul comes through whether the recordings suck or not or the songs are modern or old.”
As far as the do-it-yourself feel that seems to define garage rock, few bands in Salt Lake don’t have this ethic.
“When it comes to DIY, nearly all the bands in Salt Lake are garage, we have no other choice,” says Scheering.
“I guess The Wolfs share this ethic,” says Morrisson. “We make all our own stuff, and everything from recording to T-shirts is done by band members and friends. Jeremy Smith [The Wolfs’ guitarist] was mad at me for awhile because when I drew our logo, I used lined paper in a spiral notebook and he had to get the lines out. That’s how professional we are. We’re just in it for fun and a chance to party with our friends.”
Says Payne, “Red Bennies is 100 percent self-made and maintained and we’re very proud of that. I know it’s no different for any groups in town, of course, but I’ve got my own record label going so I can spread out and share with other good groups. A definitely strong and distinct ‘all by myself’ feeling pervades Red Bennies and associates.”
And of course, all give kudos to Salt Lake bands in general, whether they’re garage-oriented or not.
“I think Salt Lake music rocks,” says Payne.
“Good rock & roll has been around for awhile in this city, but I think this city has blossomed again and definitely deserves some attention,” says Snider. “Right now, the music scene is full of unbelievable talent.”
“Good things tend to come out of smaller towns because everyone knows each other, there’s more support,” says Sartain. “There’s more of a unity here.”
“Salt Lake will show this great music one way or another,” says Scheering. “There are too many people working too hard here for their efforts to be barren.”
“I think the Salt Lake music scene is great,” says Morrisson. “The bands are good and have lots of cool people who come to the shows. It’s much better here than in lots of supposedly cooler places. When I go there, I tell them, ‘Yeah, whatever, come to Salt Lake.’”