Local alternative music scene grew from backyards to local venues
by Hayley Hulin
photography by Jerri White
An inconsistent drum beat mingles with a heavy electric guitar and thumping bass, and fills the backyard of a Pomona home on a Saturday night. The local band playing gives their all to entertain an audience of high school seniors who appear more interested in getting high than listening to music. Unintelligible lyrics are sung by the lead singer who also strums his electric guitar with as much gusto and imprecision as his words. The audience, however, does not seem to mind — they are vibing with the sounds after a few hits from a shared joint.
Just a few miles away from the backyard show, a lineup of bands play a rooftop venue in downtown Pomona. From the ground, not much seems to be going on, but sounds from the gig above become clearer during the ascent up the stairs. Incoming audience members are welcomed into the venue by a drummer who wildly wails on his drum set, lead singer and guitarist who looks slyly at her audience with cool confidence, and a bassist and other guitarist who strum their instruments a little quicker whenever they make eye contact. Their sound is much clearer and consistent than that of the backyard band, but matched in passion.
Within recent years, the music scene in the area — Pomona specifically — has morphed from thriving backyard and garage punk rock shows to popular gigs at local venues. There is a distinct difference between quality of sound and audience demographic for the two kinds of shows. Popularity of the local music scene grows with teenagers into adulthood, and so does their taste in where and how they listen to live music. Not-yet-legal music lovers had to (and still do) get their fill of live bands from Pomona backyards, but as they mature into drinking-age adults, they direct their attention to laid-back bars.
Punk rock, as a music genre and subculture developed in the 70’s, has influenced current day artists and has greatly affected the attitudes of local bands. Punk is rooted in garage rock with an anti-establishment message. This attitude encourages DIY ethics like self-produced records and self-promotion, which young bands continue to do, now considered postpunk. After schisms from and diversification of punk, new genres emerged and fall under an “alternative” or “indie” umbrella. Although varying in sound, popular bands include Nirvana, Arctic Monkeys, Fall Out Boy, Blink-182 and Sublime. Pomona’s postpunk style is all about the attitude and aesthetic, and less about a genre bands share.
According to Justin Paul Saunders, a booking manager for dba256 Gallery Wine Bar, currently psych-rock and blues-rock dominate as favorite genres at Pomona venues, while Beach Goth and punk are favored in backyards. Famous psych-rock artists include bands like the Beatles, the Doors and Pink Floyd, and their music is said to enhance mind-altering experiences. Beach Goth is a festival organized by The Growlers at the Observatory in Santa Ana and is also considered a new genre that originated from Orange County. It has surfer beats mixed with other influences like garage rock. “Beach Goth kinda has a psychedelic mixed with a punk feel. A lot of those, you’re going to find in backyard shows because those crowds are younger,” Saunders says. “A lot of the spots that you go to — they’re bars, so 21 plus — and younger ones can’t come. A lot of the Beach Goth and punk shows you’re going to find are in backyards because that’s the only spot that’ll have them because they draw kids.”
Gio Flores, 23, of Pomona, worked with two friends to put together a backyard show for a friend’s 18th birthday party in March. Flores secured The Groans, Foliage, Girl Parts, The Bunks, Joos and Jade Mood — all local bands — to play short sets throughout the night. “It’s hassling. We had a couple of bands drop out,” Flores says. “They wanted too much money.” Flores says mostly high school students attend house shows, which makes him feel uncomfortable. “Usually the kids just want to get high, but for me, it’s about bonding and making friends at shows,” he says.
At this show, and many like it, a small crowd of minors paid $3 in a dark alley to crowd the backyard of a Pomona house, listen to indie rock, drink alcohol and get high off of anything from marijuana to helium in balloons. Bands used a shovel as a makeshift mic stand and a piñata hung in the corner of the yard. As the first band did a sound check, high school kids found spots throughout the backyard and clumped together with friends. Two girls served as bartenders to the audience — they mixed Jungle Juice, which is a roughly mixed cocktail of any and every liquor, and charged $1 for beer. Near the table of alcohol was a helium tank with a boy filling balloons for anyone who wanted to inhale the gas. Unfortunately, inhaling helium displaces air in lungs the way water would, which cuts off oxygen supply. Flores says most of the people who go to house shows are kids who want to get high while they listen to live music by new and local bands.
“We want to play venues, but we started three months ago,” says Jay Anzaldo, a 26-year-old bassist for Jade Moon. “We like playing the bar scene.” Most bands prefer to play venues as opposed to house shows for multiple reasons, which include sound quality, safety and legal issues. “From a band’s perspective, it’s probably — I want to say more enjoyable — but it’s a different environment,” Saunders says. “It feels different from a backyard show. The big difference is that a venue show isn’t going to get shut down. They’re guaranteed to play, and it sounds better.”
Often times at house shows, equipment is damaged and bands have to pay for new gear after performing for little to no money. “We haven’t done a house show for a while because our sh-t would get broken all the time,” says 21-year-old Melissa Brooks, lead singer of The Aquadolls. “People would stand on our amps and we got tired of buying new stuff.” The Aquadolls is a Southern California band signed with indie label Burger Records, and they consider their sound as “psychedelic surf punk,” also known as Beach Goth. Recently, they played a small gig on the Pomona College campus that drew only fans who knew about the show through social media, Twitter specifically. The intimate setting had a buzzing energy that caused the audience to bounce, groove and form a small mosh pit. About 10 people began to mosh, and out of the group, one tripped on wires and fell, and another began to bleed after someone flailed their arm and hit his face. “(Moshing) is a liability when it comes down to it. Places don’t want that,” Saunders says. “Shows aren’t very profitable to begin with, if it’s profitable at all. So a lot of times they don’t want to add an added risk to it. It’s like, ‘Guys be glad you have this show. Enjoy it, have fun, just don’t do sh-t that’ll make a venue not want to have you.’ One injury could cost $10,000, and it’s just not worth it.”
“Backyard shows are still a thing,” Saunders says. “A lot of the shows were going more DIY, which is why backyard shows were so big. But now it’s gotten to the point where people are going to smaller spots and bars where things are simplified. So even the shows that are at our venues, it’s almost like a house party but not quite.”
As you approach security at the front door of Flyway at Fox in downtown Pomona, you quickly flash a drivers license. The bouncer approves of your adulthood and you shuffle through the doors and begin the ascent to the roof of the building. The higher you get, the louder the drums, guitar and bass sound. The gig has already begun and you weave through groups of people, past the crowded bar, throughout the dimly lit venue before claiming a space for yourself. Once you find a place to sit or stand, you notice the cans of beer and glasses of other alcoholic beverages in the hands of everyone and suddenly you crave a beer for yourself. The bar is two rows deep of people — everyone has alcohol and music on their minds — so it takes a few minutes to get the attention of the bartender, but once you have it you are set to go. With a beer in hand, you are ready to chill and vibe with the rest of the audience.
As the first band ends their set, members from the next group emerge from within the crowd to set up their stage. During setup, audience members pass the bar and occupy Flyway’s patio for a quick smoke and catch up with friends. Others crowd the bar for their second round of drinks while the venue’s stage and sound managers run back and forth between stage and sound booth. The band begins to play and people return to each spot they previously occupied, like an unspoken agreement was made about where to stand or sit. For the rest of the night this continues and you jam to indie rock with like-minded music lovers. Flyway is one spot where the Pomona music scene thrives.
The area is home to larger venues like The Glass House and The Fox Theater Pomona, and smaller ones like dba256, The Press Restaurant and Flyway at Fox — all of which host live music from local bands. Flyway at Fox, in downtown Pomona on Garey Avenue, is a small, enclosed rooftop bar and venue for live music and other events. The space, lit blue with stage lights and strings of twinkle lights, is long with a full bar near the open-air porch and compact stage at the opposite end. Mirrors extend both sides of Flyway, which creates the illusion of a larger venue. A tin roof and open doors to the porch leaves the space chilly on a spring evening, but comfortable on a summer night. Sound for each performance is controlled on a balcony overlooking the venue, and Saunders runs back and forth between the band and the sound guy to ensure audience members hear music with the highest quality. The entire place has a relaxed and cool vibe that is inviting and makes them feel welcomed and comfortable.
Microcosm of musicians
Pomona’s local music scene is a microcosm of musicians who know each other, create “supergroups” (a separate band that consists of members of different bands), and in some cases, share equipment. “You can go to any local show in the area and there’ll be at least four or five other different bands that are just hanging out,” Saunders says. “Everybody is there supporting each other. There are no rivalries, a lot of times they share equipment. There are no egos, everyone takes turns who’s playing where, who’s playing what. Because they know that there are not many spots that offer to them anymore. It’s a small market for them now. Most of the bands you deal with are very appreciative and just very stoked to be playing.”
Sleep Club, a local band familiar to the Pomona music scene, is led by University of La Verne senior music major Dylan Peruti, who is a vocalist and lead guitarist. He wanted to start a band his freshman year when he took a music theory class and began to write his own music. Currently, Sleep Club is in transition with band members, but in the past they have played shows in Pomona, Claremont and Echo Park. “Pomona is like home, but I like playing in Echo Park too,” Peruti says. “To break into LA, you have to start in Echo Park, but in Pomona, you gain a local following. If I go to a gig (in Pomona), there are always familiar faces and it’s always casual. There’s not a whole lot of pressure.” Echo Park, according to Peruti, is the place for small bands to break through into the Los Angeles music scene.
In Pomona, there is only so much room to grow before a band plateaus with their fanbase compared to Echo Park, where there are more opportunities for a band to be heard and grow. Peruti avoids genres because, if Sleep Club identifies with one, they are put into a box. The band considers their sound “heart rock,” which Peruti made up, and does not fall within one particular genre, because they put their heart into the compositions and overall message.
The music scene in Pomona, while constantly evolving, has stayed strong and tight knit. There are distinct differences, however, between venue shows and house shows — the most apparent being an age difference. Along with youth comes increased rowdiness and substance abuse. While both have a strong audience following, there is an obvious feeling of having upgraded when seeing a band play live in a venue as opposed to a house. Every band starts somewhere, and local musicians rarely forget their roots in the backyards of Pomona.