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The Boulevard Park Trio: One and Done
This obscure Sacramento band's only record embodies the timeless beauty of bored, talented youth entertaining themselves in a hot, flat city in the 1990s.
“In some ways I like that every day is just one long day here.” —Scott Miller
The song “Another Crush” by Sacramento’s The Boulevard Park Trio evokes such distinct, cinematic feelings in me that it’s hard to believe I have no personal connection to it beyond the music. I’ve never lived in Sacramento. I didn’t listen to this band during my impressionable youth. Nostalgia can influence our listening habits so profoundly that comfort can keep us replaying overly familiar music, just like it keeps us eating ice cream after we’re full, but this groggy, jazzy, lo-fi instrumental is not nostalgic music from my lost youth. It’s just good.
The band released it in 1994. I first heard the song in my mid-30s in 2011. After Scott Miller talked with me about his band Tiki Men, he sent me a copy of The Boulevard Park Trio’s only record, the Civic Pride E.P. If you like us, he said, you’ll like this. Miller liked this instrumental band so much that he’d asked to release their music on his Secret Center label the first time he heard them perform in 1993, which might have been the same day they’d written the music they played.
This was the age of the single. Miller and his childhood friends Ed Carroll and Jason Dezember started Secret Center in 1990 to release music from their own band, Nar. Like most good indie labels, they found scores of local bands to record over the years, some great, some forgettable, and released compilations with perfect titles like Yahtzee Punks Fuck Off. In the process they documented a slice of the musical underground of 1990s Sacramento, on a slew of records and cassettes with handmade covers, ranging from punk to jangle pop to inside jokes. This began during the more innocent era before Sub Pop helped drag underground culture into the mainstream through clever, aggressive marketing of legitimately good music. Sacramento’s musical underworld was less interested in visibility, an era before the advent of MP3 blogs and file-sharing sites, when many bands could still sell a sizeable amount of 45s at shows, brick and mortar stores, and also through the mail. Secret Center bands made music for fun. Even though some bands like The Bananas developed international cult followings, many local releases never got more than 100 copies made. Many got ignored by the outside world entirely. Discogs doesn’t have them for sale. In the same way that the four-track recorder had liberated musicians from relying entirely on record labels or expensive studios to record their music, so too could bands make their own 45s. You just needed to pool enough money to pay for mastering and pressing. You could do the cover art yourself. Anyone with some scissors and a copy machine could make the sleeves. By the mid-90s, the friends who started Secret Center with Miller had gone on to other things and left him to run it himself. He’d made it into less of a label and more of what a fan described as “one person’s love letter to the Midtown Sacramento music scene.”
“If Sac had its own money,” one interviewer said, “Scott would be on the one dollar bill.”
The Boulevard Park Trio’s Civic Pride E.P. contains four songs, running a total of 11 minutes. It seemed to be the only physical evidence of the band’s existence. Miller had originally pressed between 300 and 500 copies of it. It didn’t sell as well as the Tiki Men’s debut Sneak-A-Drink With. When he and I talked, 200 unsold sleeveless copies of Civic Pride were laying around his house. He printed me a blue sleeve. He’d printed others on red, yellow, and green. After the record arrived in a brown bubble wrap mailer, Track 2 lit something in me. Maybe “Another Crush” felt as woozy as a crush to the guys who wrote it. To me it sounded how the end of summer felt: sluggish, sweet, golden, slightly sad. I played it over and over.
“Another Crush” isn’t brilliant. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s a simple twinkling rock instrumental whose guitar work blends elements of lounge, Blues, and surf music. Like Sacramento, it’s pretty level, with only slight rises in topography. Some songs come so close to perfection but get ruined by small things: The melody’s great but the singer’s voice is irritating; great lyrics get trounced but tinny production. This song is unflawed. It sticks to its groove long enough to immerse listeners in its somnolent mood, with two dreamy crescendos punctuating it. Some would categorize it as surf music, with the reverb and staccato picking during the solo, but its drum fills and guitar vocabulary isn’t truly surf. The record’s first, fast song “Long Shot” is surf. To me “Another Crush” is instrumental garage music with hints of exotica. And like so much garage rock, it does more with less. The excitable drummer doesn’t fear fuck-ups. The bassist locks into his simple buoyant melody. The guitarist has serious chops, but this song isn’t about showmanship or technicality. It’s about atmosphere. Playing fewer notes than a less soulful player would, he holds back to allow space. His restraint lets sounds reverberate and creates moments of tension. It’s beautiful music, sleepy but dynamic—a loose ’60s, loungey style with a playful ’90s attitude. And yet, “Another Crush” sounds completely undated, coming from no particular place or era, just that carefree bubble in someone’s garage where time doesn’t exist—the original meaning of garage rock. Because that’s all it is: rock ‘n’ roll without words. As my three-year-old daughter said while listening to it that summer: “Where’s the voice?” I said, “It’s just guitar, bass, and drums, Little Bug, a trio.” Trios are more common in jazz than rock. But that simple format elicits such strong feelings that talk of genre and guitar technique fail to get at it.
Music’s about feeling, and “Another Crush” feels like that time of year when the slopes of the freeway turn green to gold, the thistles harden, and burrs start sticking to your socks. It feels like a day fishing on a slough, heavy from beer under the railroad trestle, with only a bucket full of empties and no fish to show for it. It feels like that fleeting time of day when the setting sun turns the sky neon pink, and the sweat on your brow finally dries. It feels like a teenage kiss, bold and uncomplicated, putting in just enough effort and little at risk. It feels like waking up at whatever o’clock in an un-air-conditioned apartment and losing track of the days. It’s an afternoon haze so thick you can’t see the mountains, and nothing seems as blue as the streams flowing through your memories of sleepaway camp. It’s that part of summer when you can’t remember what it was like to feel cold.
When I heard Jonathan Richman sing his song “Summer Feeling,” I finally understood this song’s seduction. The way certain seemingly random images come to you from nowhere during your adulthood, these mundane, pointless moments that circulate in your memory: laying on your brown bedroom carpet in middle school; getting Orange Julius at the mall; making fried egg sandwiches with friends after class. Richman remembers a little girl with dirty ankles at a dusty playground. “And you remember the ankle locket,” he sings. “And the way she flirted with you / For all this time / How come?” Good question. “You pick these things apart they’re not that appealin’,” he sings. “You put them together and you’ll get this certain feelin’. That summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life.” That’s “Another Crush.”
After reading this, most listeners will wonder what all my fuss is about, but that’s the inextricable, subjective nature of music: Certain song’s appeal lays beyond comprehension. Some just grab you, and you never understand why. There are keys and chords and melodic progressions, but music is like love. You can’t always explain why you match. You just do. And it’s only this one song. The Civic Pride E.P.’s other three are electric and fun but never cast such a spell. Few songs do, which was why I wanted to know more about the origins of this hypnotic tune. Who made it, and where? Scott Miller describes BPT as “almost an invisible band.” And that’s coming from the person who designed and released their record.
The record offered no clues. It listed band members’ first names. No songwriting credits. No details about where and who recorded it. Googling Secret Center Record’s old mailing address at 1008 10th Street, unit #277 took you to the plain downtown intersection of J and 10th streets. The towering Citizen Hotel stood across from a strip of two-story commercial buildings, where first-floor stores like Falafel Corner lay beneath second-story apartments. Maybe unit #277 had been one of the units above Rodney’s Cigars Liquors across 10th? Or was #277 an inside joke? Sacramento’s historic Boulevard Park neighborhood lay east of here.
On the record’s red back sleeve, an old reproduced map of Boulevard Park included text too small to read without a magnifying glass, and I didn’t have a magnifying glass. On the front photo, the young band members stood beside a “Welcome to Boulevard Park” sign, their hands on their hearts, as if pledging allegiance to their mid-city neighborhood. From the band name to the EP title, this record seemed deeply regional.
Many Sacramento neighborhoods are named for parks: Oak Park, North Park, New Era Park, Curtis Park, Land Park, South Oak Park, Central Oak Park, Nichols Park. It’s a city of trees and public spaces. Both are good for the spirit. Around 1905, developers subdivided the historic racetrack and fairgrounds into residential lots, creating Boulevard Park, the first residential subdivision in Sacramento city limits. Located northeast of the capitol, above Midtown and below the American River, beautiful old homes and mid-century apartment buildings fill the blocks, which run north-south between E and J streets, and west-east between 16th and 24th streets. It is very classically “park like,” with tall oak, elm, and sycamore trees towering along the walkable boulevards. The neighborhood’s namesake is the old horse track that runs through the center of 21st and 22nd streets and was repurposed as a grassy island, planted with trees. It’s the largest neighborhood in Sacramento listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Boulevard Park is a stone’s throw from Sutter’s Landing, the site where Swiss frontiersman Captain John A. Sutter landed on the American River in 1839 and built the first non-Indigenous settlement in California’s Central Valley, the one that would become this city. During the 90s, before recent waves of gentrification, young musicians found cheap rent all over town. Most avoided the east and west sides and settled in Midtown neighborhoods near downtown. Midtown is more expensive now but still cheaper than Oakland or Berkeley. To me it’s just as beautiful at The Bay, but it was never as cool.
As a city, Sacramento has long been an underdog, damned like Bakersfield and Fresno by its rural interior location. Often dismissed as a redneck, backwards-ass, conservative place in the state’s flat, hot, rural center, many coastal denizens look down on it as a nowhere place, the kind you don’t visit, the kind where locals get trapped. Writer Joan Didion grew up here. She considered this modest, genteel, insular place to be the most distinctly Californian of places. To understand California, she said, you have to understand Sacramento, “for Sacramento is California,” she wrote, because California is a place “in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” Sacramento-born journalist David Watts Barton told The Los Angeles Times: “The pleasures of Sacramento are modest pleasures, but they’re also the best pleasures.” Actress Greta Gerwig set her 2017, Academy Award-nominated, directorial debut Lady Bird here—a love letter to her native city—and she started it with a Didion quote. “It’s not a ‘show-offy’ place,” Gerwig told The Los Angeles Times. “It doesn’t sell itself hard… It’s not there to sort of prove it on Instagram or something. If you’re there, you know.” As a 67-year-old Sacramento bank teller once told me, “There’s no good angle here, no good hair day. If average isn’t your thing, then this city probably isn’t either.” She’d lived here her whole life and wouldn’t live anywhere else. I could see why. I fell in love the first time I got off the interstate and drove through the city in 1996 or 97. Cruising downtown to Midtown to The Beat record store on J Street, wandering cracked hot sidewalks where gnarled sycamores grew beside blooming roses and shaggy palms—I’d explored so much of coastal California, but this was a new California to me. Like “Another Crush,” the city and I were an instant match. Did Boulevard Park Trio’s musicians feel the same?
The words CIVIC PRIDE E.P. stretched across the bottom of the record in crudely painted white letters. Were these musicians truly proud of their cow-poke city, or was this civic pride ironic? Irony was very popular in the ’90s. So were the roomy jeans and thrift store shirts the musicians wore in the picture. Besides getting labeled with many unfair stereotypes, the city that locals called “Sac” was close enough to San Francisco to be cast perpetually in the iconic city’s shadow. San Francisco had stunning topography and a colorful history of Beat poets, ’60s psychedelia, and clubs like the Filmore West. It had the Golden Gate Bridge, searing Jimi Hendrix live recordings, and touristy Haight Ashbury. It was a place to dream your big dreams. Sac had Old Town and low bridges. It had ornate old theaters, live punk recordings, and the Beach Boys’ first live album, Concert, too, though too few outsiders noticed much from a city whose nickname also referred to testicles.
“It’s almost like there’s more of an embarrassment of living in Sac than there is a dislike of living in Sac,” Scott Miller once said. “Everyone feels like they should leave and if they haven’t left….” But invisibility has privileges: cheaper rent, creative freedom, a slower pace of life, even something you might call “normalcy.” Burned tour musicians often talk about wanting their normal life back. Sac offered all musicians the opportunity to lead one. Lower expectations also afford underdogs room to play. When no one’s looking, underdogs can do what they want. It happened in Seattle in the late-80s and early ’90s, and the innovative music Seattle’s once-invisible bands made eventually took over the world. Sac musicians have done whatever they’ve wanted for decades without taking over anything. In the process, they built a thriving underground world of musical side-projects during the 1990s, where talented, bored youth entertained themselves by forming bands that produced a tangle of jangly punk, pop, and garage music. If only more outsiders heard it. Not all the bands felt that way.
“I think ultimately they thought Boulevard Park Trio was a laugh,” Miller told me, “I loved it and asked to do a single, and that was it. Nobody cared to add anything, nobody made an insert, and everyone thought I’m sure SOMEONE will come around eventually who cares and we’ll let them know the deal ;).”
Miller appreciated the way pre-internet music possessed a particular magic. As he told The Bay Bridged in 2012: “I liked how [in the past] info about a band would trickle out instead of flood. The records tended to get in the hands of die-hards and people that went the extra mile to find out about things... I strongly believe that the many cracks you had to fill into every half-story made everything a lot more interesting.”
That definitely described me and this record.
According to an online index called The Sacramento Inbred Band Project, The Boulevard Park Trio lasted between 1993 and ’95 and included drummer James Williams, bassist Nic Offer, and guitarist Tristan Tozer. It was a spin off from the members’ other, longer-lived punk band The Yah Mos, which were, at the time, what Miller called “the coolest, most exciting band in the Sac DIY punk scene.”
Formed in 1991, Yah Mos really got going in 1992. Tozer played guitar, but Williams played bass, and Offer sang. “It was Nic’s band initially,” Tozer told me one hot summer day. “We didn’t really know how to play our instruments.” Because The Yah Mos’ second drummer Mike Guis was always late for practice, the other guys started jamming ’60s-style, instrumental music while they waited for him to show up, and that trio became its own short-lived entity.
All in their mid-40s now, Tozer had earned a Masters in Public History and worked in Sacramento alongside Nar drummer Ed Carroll and writer-historian Bill Burg in the state’s Office of Historic Preservation, helping government agencies whose construction projects involved historic structures. Offer had moved to New York City in 2001 and played with his popular dance-punk band !!!, pronounced chk chk chk, who’s played with everyone from The Red Hot Chili Peppers to Tame Impala. And James Williams and his wife lived in Santa Barbara, where he had a job similar to Tozer’s, assessing historic buildings as an architectural historian for an environmental consulting firm. When I spoke with Offer in late September, 2020, COVID-19 made it impossible to tour, but he was grateful to be able to routinely stay up until 5 a.m. making music in his home-studio. “I don’t know what kind of world I’m making this for,” he said, “but I’m making music.”
Unlike Scott Miller’s band members in Tiki Men and Nar, who grew up near downtown, Offer, Williams, and Tozer all hailed from the suburb of Rancho Cordova. Williams and Tozer met while skateboarding in 9th grade and hit it off in algebra class. A grade younger, Williams lived with his grandmother and listened to punk, The Cure, and New Order. He was a quick study on any instrument. “He came over to my house right after I started learning guitar,” Tozer told me. “I couldn’t really play. He’d gotten a hold of a bass. He couldn’t play. It was one of the sessions where you plug into the same amp and make noise for an hour, and then go, ‘Okay, later.’ That was the first time I played with him.”
Offer and Tozer met inside a music store. Offer was coming out of a guitar lesson. Tozer was buying strings. Half of Offer’s head was shaved and he wore something like a Smiths t-shirt. As they eyeballed each other, Tozer thought He’s not some meathead metal guy. Who is this person? Then they went their separate ways. Offer attended a private Catholic school but ended up living in Tozer’s neighborhood. When they saw each other out someplace Tozer said, “You were at that store,” and they became friends.
Actually, Offer had been a metal guy. Born on a military base in Berlin, his family bounced through California before landing in Rancho when he was eight. He got into classic rock and popular hair bands like Quiet Riot and Def Leppard, drawn inexplicably to loud, aggressive music. When he heard Madonna and Prince, it transformed his tastes and briefly turned him pop, laying the groundwork for his future life in dance-punk bands. Then he found The Cure and changed again. He was always evolving.
“I was a New Waver at a Catholic school,” Offer remembered, “the only guy who dressed weird, so people would yell all the homophobic insults at me that were common back then. I didn’t fit in there or have a lot of friends. When I met James and Tristan, that’s when I really felt like These are my people. Instantly it was: These guys get it. I liked that they were not like the other New Wavers. Since I didn’t know any New Wavers at Jesuit, I had this idealized view of how it’d be so cool to just sit around and talk about The Smiths and The Cure or whatever. James and Tristan liked a lot of that stuff, but their opinions were very different, so they turned me onto different music and different ways of thinking about it.”
Born in the rural, garlic-growing town of Gilroy, California, Tozer moved to Rancho Cordova in middle school. His sister and both parents played guitar, so guitars were always around. “I always liked guitar and music a lot,” Tozer said. “I was always affected by it. I could hear something once and hum it back.” His mother’s musical range shaped him. Classical, surf rock, and golden oldies like the Everly Brothers were always playing at her home, but she especially loved jazz guitarists like Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, and Pat Metheny. She took Tozer to see Kenny Burrell for one of his first concerts. The legendary jazz guitarist opened for jazz drummer Tony Williams with a solo performance. “I remember after a few words, he went to play and there was no sound. He then knelt down, fiddled with the knobs, then smacked the top of the amp. Problem solved. The crowd laughed and he had us in his hands after that.” She had George Benson’s Bad Benson. “I loved it because it had this rippin’ guitar sound. I could probably hum all the solos, even though I never really learned them and I heard them when I was three or four.” He also loved how the funky, soulful guitarist wore a black turtleneck and a Playboy bunny medallion on the cover, and held a black guitar.
Mrs. Tozer’s mature musical taste shaped Offer’s taste just as strongly. Tristan supplemented Offers’ and Williams’ Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys with oldies and hip music like Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, R&B, and Soul. “I only had the best of Elvis Costello,” Offer remembered, “but his mom had all of the tapes, so he would lend me all those. If you’re into The Cure and The Smiths, you kind of liked all the bands that dress that way. Especially when you’re a teenager, you’re defining yourself by that style of dress. Tristan was the first one that played me The Jackson 5. He was the reason I started listening to ’60s Soul music. That was not what your usual New Order fans listened to in America.” He still considers a certain afternoon that they spent spinning 45s in Tozer’s bedroom as crucial to his creative development. What goth-y Cure kid also listened to Syl Johnson’s Soul classic “Is It Because I’m Black?” and Jimmy Castor Bunch’s “Troglodyte (Cave Man)”?
As suburbs go, Rancho had the reputation for being the rough, druggy suburb. There may have been little obvious stuff to do in Sac’s suburban flatlands, but previous Rancho kids had made due. In the late-70s, some skated the Sierra Wave Skate Park in nearby Rosemont. Others formed the gritty N-Men skate crew and rode drainage ditches, culverts, empty pools, and other rough urban environments. And some formed the band The R.C. Boys in 1979, one of Sac’s first hardcore bands, whose members went on to form the other locally infamous bands Square Cools and Tales of Terror. The future-Boulevard Park Trio skated, walked aimlessly around Rancho Cordova talking about music, and converged at Round Table Pizza.
“This is how square we were,” Tozer remembered. “We would go to Round Table Pizza, drink endless Cokes, and listen to the jukebox. We were really into Human League’s ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination,’ and we would play it over and over again, partly to antagonize the employees. That was as wild as we got.” Round Table Pizza was near Spirit Records. So they’d buy tapes at Spirit then hang at Round Table, where bottomless soda cost one dollar and bought them space to sit for hours, wired on sugar and caffeine, feeding the jukebox quarters to play oldies and deep cuts like The Cure B-side called “Too Late,” B-52s’ B-side called ‘Channel Z,” Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and its B-side, “Jody,” and A.W. Patterson’s countrified “Ain’t No Ugly People after 2 AM.” Instead of some algorithmically driven selections hoisted on them by data-driven corporations, a jukebox gave them a joint musical education.
“That was a very powerful time of my life,” said Offer.
“It was more of a gift than a curse that we grew up some place as boring as Rancho,” said Williams. “We had to make our own fun.”
Once Tozer started skateboarding in seventh grade, his taste expanded from his parents’ music into the punk rock that was part of early skate culture. A fellow skater gave him a tape. One side was Sex Pistols. The other side was an accidental recording of the kid fighting with his older brother Miles. “Shut up Miles,” they screamed. “No, you shut up!’ The Minor Threat compilation that Tozer got next blew him away. “I mean, I came from a musical family,” he said, “but I had never heard music that aggressive and that flat. It was like one note. Lala lala lala lala. It had such power. I distinctly remember sitting there and my mind was gone, thinking This is amazing.” He quickly found Bad Brains and Thrasher magazine’s old skate comps featuring bands like Los Olvidados and JFA, which was a skate-punk band from my hometown of Phoenix. But he didn’t show interest in playing until ninth grade.
He’d been skating all day at his dad’s house and ran out of things to do. He told him, “I’m so bored, Dad.” His Dad said, “Why don’t you try to learn this.” So Tozer sat there struggling with this instrument, and a couple of days later, he was able to play a chord. “I liked guitar when I found that I could amuse myself doing it,” he said. From there, he got one of those Play Guitar with The Ventures records from the library and learned “Walk-Don’t Run,” one of the most famous instrumental rock songs of all time. The Ventures’ instructional albums and guitar style influenced countless guitarists, from George Harrison to John Fogerty. “I liked Roy Clark,” he said. “I was really into The Big Bad Rock Guitar of Glen Campbell, too. That record was basically just surf and spy instrumentals with really corny production with background singers and stuff.” Tozer started finding more instrumentals. “Back then you’d go to Target and find those cheap tapes from Holland that were like four for $10: 20 hits by so-and-so! Johnny and the Hurricanes’ ‘Red River Rock’ was another one I really liked. The simple, charging kind of stuff, very ’50s, early ’60s. I liked simple straight ahead tunes at the time, kind of direct songs, whether it was oldies or Slant 6. I was always listening to punk rock as well, and I would learn those two things: oldies and punk.” He laughed while saying this. “So a typical California kid, I guess: skateboarding and music!” Yes, but there was nothing typical about his equal love of oldies, Soul, funk, and punk rock.
“Nic was always very ambitious and up-to-date on music,” Tozer remembered. “He played guitar and wrote songs. I ended up being the lead guitar player as I was learning to play guitar from his stuff, which meant sitting in his room playing his songs. Then James got involved, and the three of us started playing music. We were 15 or 16.”
“I don’t know what possessed me,” said Williams. “When I was 14, I decided I specifically wanted to play the bass. My mom found a janky ass one through a friend. I couldn’t play it or anything. I learned how to play by being in The Yah Mos. I remember the first time I played music with Nic, he was showing me this super rudimentary bass line for some song he’d written. Later, he admitted thinking, ‘This guy’s never going to learn to play the bass.’ I struggled so much plucking this little four-note thing. For whatever reason, I chose bass. I just sort of stuck there. Learning to play while you perform is tough at first. In addition to being punk, it’s a good way to learn. You just have to figure it out. There’s three other guys playing with you, hoping you at least occasionally hit a right note.”
Tozer turned Offer on to punk. “It’s a classic thing: When you try to get into punk and you buy the new records by the bands that were good eight years before.” In the late-80s, the local punk rockers wore Exploited shirts. So he bought an Exploited record. It sucked. Most of the punk records he bought were the shitty records. He didn’t get it. “That kept me from getting into punk for a long time. But Tristan left me that first Minor Threat tape at my house, and Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs at the same time. I remember the first time I put on Minor Threat. It was such a jolt of adrenaline and electricity. That started me on down the path. Then when Nation of Ulysses happened, that was really exciting. When I went see them play, it was the same year that I saw Ministry play at an arena. That was the last arena rock show I went to for, I don’t know, like 10 years. It wasn’t like seeing those other bands that are in your face, on a stage that’s three-feet high. It couldn’t compare. So I left corporate rock and all that. I probably denied myself of a lot of music that I really like now. That’s when I threw all that synth music into this ‘stupid’ category and hated all that stuff. I got stupid about it.” Stupid or not, it was natural that these friends eventually channeled their musical interests and opinionated passion into their own band. They named it The Yah Mos. Their fortunes changed when their social lives moved downtown.
Offer got thrown out on the final day of Catholic school for smoking during the big baccalaureate mass, which the school held right before graduation, with all the students and parents present. “It was a snotty kid thing to do,” said Offer. “You think you’re Holden Caulfield and everybody’s full of shit and phony, and you’re gonna show them by smoking a cig, man!” He quickly moved out of his parents’ house in 1992 to Boulevard Park in central Sac, where he got his own apartment and a job at a little bodega called the Renaissance General Store. ‘Renaissance’ means rebirth, revival, revitalization. For him, the move proved to be just that.
“I think I was the first one from Rancho to get an apartment that we would all hang out at,” Offer said. Tozer and Williams frequently hung downtown with him and kept working on The Yah Mos. Offer was living his punk life. When he lost his job a month later, he didn’t want another one. He didn’t want to pay rent. He wanted to play music, so he immediately got on food stamps and general assistance. “I entered that life,” he said. “My car got stolen, so I couldn’t go back to Rancho as much. I started to have to get tough a little bit, you know, have to do this and that.” To hustle. Thankfully he met musician, writer, and fellow hustler Scott Soriano. A generation older than Offer, the two became friends after a night stapling show flyers to telephone poles. And once again, everyone’s lives expanded.
In 1991, Soriano started hosting shows in the small, two-story building behind Time Tested Books where he worked. Located at 1114 21st Street in Midtown, Soriano had already been renting it as band practice space. Because the stage was on the second floor, they called it The Loft. The Loft became one of Sacramento’s most influential underground music venues. Soriano ran this unpermitted, all-ages, donation only venue from the fall of 1991 to 2001, when a neighboring business convinced the cops they were dealing drugs, which they weren’t. The Yah Mos started practicing at The Loft early on, and Offer started sleeping on the stage. It was made of two layers of pallets, covered with plywood and carpet.
“At one point, a bunch of us were trying to find another space for all-ages shows,” Soriano told me, “kinda like a Gilman Street thing. We planned a benefit for it. Nic and I volunteered to flyer. I drove him around so he could staple gun posters to telephone poles, and we had a blast. From then on, we hung out a lot and became best friends. Nic and his little brother Danny kinda became my kid brothers.”
Offer and friends found Soriano’s place before it found its identity. “The fact that there was no definition to it was important,” remembered Offer. “Even at the very first show I went to there, The Loft was just a room. It didn’t have its vibe yet. It was small enough that if only 10 people were there, it wasn’t that big a deal. If a band came that packed ’em in, then you could fit a lot of people in there and it was sweaty and fun.”
The brick building that held Time Tested Books dates to the early 1930s and served as an auto shop until the 1980s. In the 1970s, the auto shop built the two-story addition in back, which it used as a machine shop and storage area. Each floor spanned 600 square feet or less. Its front door was set slightly back off the alley, where it faced a parking garage and was bounded by a print shop, a gay bar, and an awning company. Peter Keat owned the building and bookstore. Keat was a lefty kind of guy, what Soriano called “a hippie bluegrass/folk/Americana baby boomer.” He was also an elected official. When Soriano started working at the bookstore in 1986, Keat got elected to the Board of Directors of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which was the capitol’s publicly owned utility. At that time, Time Tested stored old books in the annex, and a visual artist lived illegally in the add-on’s top floor. A piano repair guy slept on the bottom floor. The artist also drummed, and he and Soriano started playing music together.
Born and raised in Sacramento, Soriano got active in Sacramento’s music world at a young age. He’d found a box of his mom’s 45s when he was five, and as he listened, he’d stack the ones he liked, like Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” separate from ones he didn’t like—Pat Boone and Connie Francis kind of stuff. He was buying records by age ten, shoplifting records by age 13. Black Sabbath was his favorite, with its killer guitar riffs and the kind of dark, obnoxious air that was attractive to certain teenage boys. But in 1979, an older dude turned him on to the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks and rewired his brain. “I didn’t hear the music,” Soriano remembered, “just ‘Fuck this and fuck that.’ Had to find that record, so I rode ten miles to a Tower Records and somehow bought a first press of Never Mind... I turned my more rebellious friends on to it and became the first punk-looking kid in my neighborhood.”
In 1982, a young, New York-born boxing promoter named Stewart Katz started booking shows in rented halls and became the first person to promote all-ages punk shows in Sacramento. Soriano had started going to punk shows in rental halls. A devoted music fan, he was also an ambitious guy who thought Sac had that special thing that deserved respect, so he started putting up show flyers for Katz. In 1984, Katz started his own club in a warehouse in Curtis Park, called Club Minimal, and at the end of that year, Soriano moved from the suburbs to Midtown, two blocks from Katz. Young Soriano spent a lot of time at Katz’s apartment.
“After a while as part of the flyer crew,” Soriano said, “I started working shows, then promoting them, handling the money, supervising others, eventually being the #2 guy.” A fan with a booster’s heart, Soriano’s attitude back then was: “Sacto is cool as it is, a funky, odd overgrown Valley town with plenty of weird, with AND THAT’S WHY WE ARE BETTER THAN YOU! Ha!” By 1983,he was releasing his own cassettes of local bands and covering the scene in his own punk zine called SPAMM. (“Even punx in Sacto don’t know about Sacto,” his debut editorial said. “It’s time to wake up ’cos someone’s disgracing the capitol!”) Later, he fronted his own band, Los Huevos, and ran two record labels. Even when he began releasing albums from international bands as far away as Turkey, he loved local music and loved his hometown.
When the artist-drummer moved out of the bookstore annex, Soriano moved in, accepting discounted rent in place of a raise at the bookstore. “At the time only my band practiced there,” said Soriano. “It would have been a great loft style apartment had it had a shower.” One of the annex’s two exterior doors led into a hallway that connected to the bookstore. There were two bathrooms in the hall—no shower, no kitchen. “I had a hotplate I broke out from time to time, but I pretty much subsisted on burritos. I’d shower at girlfriends’ places.” When days got hot, Soriano slept on the roof. “The downstairs only got hot during extended heatwaves and only after about five days of 100-plus temperatures. Other than that it was ten to twenty degrees cooler than outside. Plus, grow up in the Central Valley and your tolerance for heat is pretty high.” He enjoyed the roof on summer nights. “When it rained, you could hear the drops fall on the roof. In a downpour, it sounded like a sheet of sound. It really was a wonderfully funky room.” Stinking wasn’t an issue. “As far as showers go,” Soriano said, “we were punk guys in our twenties! We probably—no definitely—stunk more than we should have but mostly within reason.”
After a year, he moved out, too, and started renting three-hour slots to other bands and dividing up his rent. “It was really cheap for bands to practice there,” said Soriano, “like $20 a month of one three-hour slot a week.” But only Monday through Friday, to keep the cops away and spare the first-floor resident, Larry, a Vietnam vet, all that noise. This was all unpermitted and off the books. Soriano just liked loud music and saw an opportunity for fun and profit.
“One day, my friend Craig Usher suggested that we do a show. I agreed.” He and Usher had been seeing shows together for years. Usher had put on punk shows everywhere from houses to the steps of the Capitol. He’d had a punk house himself called the Bert House, where bands like Sewer Trout practiced, and which predated Sac’s ’90s loft scene. So he and Soriano booked two Chicago bands—Jonestown and 8 Bark—with a local opener. “About 40 people showed and it went smooth, so a month later we did another.” The second show featured the Sac band Qore, fronted by singer-guitarist Kendon Smith. “Soon we did one a week, always three band bills, usually two locals and one out of town band, always on Sundays, starting at six or seven and ending around 10, always donation with out-of-town bands getting all the door. Sometimes we did a Wednesday show.” Usher helped put on the shows for the first four or so years. Then he joined the Peace Corps and started a family.
“Peter didn’t so much ‘greenlight’ it or even paid much attention to it,” Soriano said. “We had an understanding that I could do with it what I wanted as long as rent came in on time, there was no blowback on him (he was also an elected official), and if anything went wrong, I informed him about it and handled it myself (which I did).”
Despite the fact that Keat was never involved in The Loft’s operations, Keat’s acceptance was integral to the venue’s existence. He wasn’t an absentee landlord. He was fully aware of what was happening in his building, and he was cool with it. Keat loved music. He had the infamous R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders play at his wedding. As an old school folkie bohemian, he didn’t care about punk rock, but he cared about art and making rent and about supporting the youthful energy that produces cultural objects liket the books he sold, so he let Soriano and Usher do their thing. “[W]ithout his tolerance as a landlord,” Soriano said, “The Loft wouldn’t have had such a long run.” After all Keat was literally right on the other side of The Loft’s wall. Soriano just kept pushing the limits of what they could get away with. Keat never said a word. “While he was always in the bookstore, I think he came to one show in ten years,” Soriano said. “We were all Gen X and loud.”
Shows were regular and often word-of-mouth. “So they managed to push a lot of used books to the side, or found another space to put the books,” said Tozer. “You could fit maybe 50 or 60 people in there.”
“No air conditioner though and very little insulation,” said Soriano. “It was hot as fuck in the summer, though we’d still pack people in. I think we crammed over 100 people in there when Bikini Kill played, with 200 people in the parking lot for what was supposed to be a secret show!” During summer shows, they often opened the back hatch, where the ladder to the roof was. “No one was supposed to go up there except me,” Soriano said, “though people hung out on the roof during breaks at practice.” They also left the hall unlocked so people could pee during shows, and left practicing bands the bathroom key.
“Scott was really smart about so many things,” said bassist Jason Patrone, whose bands regularly played The Loft. “Loft shows were always on a Sunday. The big bands like Bikini Kill played the Bay on the weekend, so when the bands were driving back east or north home, they would hit Sacramento, and we’d get them on the return show.”
Although The Loft hosted some national touring bands like Bikini Kill, Unwound, Lightning Bolt, and The Registrators, Soriano said it “was most important for local bands that were frozen out of the ‘alt rock’ scene or too young to play bars, bands like The Yah Mos, Bananas, Nar, Tiki Men, The Knockoffs, my old band Los Huevos, and others.” And tons of small out-of-town bands played, like Los Crudos, Noggin, Deathwish Kids, and Go Sailor, which included members of the influential, fiercely independent Sac twee pop riot grrrl band Tiger Trap. The list is huge after ten years of music. “I never kept a master-list,” said Soriano, “though I am sure that someone has that info.”
“I never thought about Sacramento as being that musical of a place,” Scott Miller told one interviewer. “I guess when I was in high school we were like, ‘Well, we’ll move to San Francisco when we graduate cuz that’s where there’s shows.’ Like I never really realized what was going on—knew who the Earwigs were—and that was the only local band who I knew, and I didn’t know of any venues, although it turned out there actually were clubs—he Oasis Ballroom and Club Can’t Tell, and that was basically it before the Cattle Club. Then The Loft developed and he thought, “Oh great, it’s about time someplace like this came around.”
Unlike at many mainstream clubs, listeners didn’t just stand around staring. They got into it. They felt comfortable there, because they wanted to be there. The Loft was more than a venue. People came of age there. They made lasting friendships there. They shaped their identities there. Countless music enthusiasts and bored kids had a place to find kindred spirits during the mundane weeks that, in hindsight, composed the most formative time of their lives. No matter many of the bands proved to be forgettable, influential people cut their teeth there, like musician-turned-engineer Chris Woodhouse.
Before Woodhouse became more widely known for recording some of Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees’ best albums, and other killer ones by Sic Alps, The Intelligence, Summer Twins, and Wand, he was just another talented oddball musician keeping busy with many bands. He played guitar and drums in bands like Caboose, The Horny Mormons, and Karate Party, but his fortunes turned when he started recording bands on his four-track at The Loft. “Los Huevos’ Kiss My Cruiser EP or Nar’s Holiday Routine was the first/second recordings he did of bands not his own,” Soriano said. “He did those recordings for a pizza. Later he demanded two pizzas. I had to force him to take money. I think it was $75 for one recording and mixdown. He kept his rates far too low for far too long.”
Starting on a four-track and upgrading to an eight-track reel-to-reel with quality microphones and a board, Woodhouse recorded some music by The Bananas, FM Knives, and The Four Eyes at The Loft. Woodhouse had a keen ear and a talent for getting good sound from minimal, often crappy, equipment. “Woodhouse was and still is a stickler for the finer points of recording and sound,” Tozer said. “The first time I met him, he jumped up on stage and tuned my guitar while I was playing it!”
The Loft was a special place, but it wasn’t because of the sound. Its plywood floor, brick walls, and low sheet rock ceiling meant that, even for a wizard like Woodhouse, its acoustics weren’t great for recording. Vocals at shows were hard, sometimes impossible, to hear. The Loft’s PA system would have barely passed at most practice spaces. As one musician put it, “It sounded like the shitty practice space it was.” And that was okay. It was like a punk house party: crap sound, magical vibe. “With no sound insulation,” said Soriano, “sound leaked out and in. Fortunately, there wasn’t a lot of noise outside, an occasional garbage truck, maybe some drunks fighting, that’s about it. The rest of the building was dead silent, though sometimes you could hear the printing press next door, through the wall—not loud enough to be captured in a recording.” No one disputes its uniqueness and importance. But as soon as Woodhouse could, he started recording, as one musician put it, anywhere else than The Loft. That meant he started to record bands regularly at Earharmonik in 1997, and recording his band The Pretty Girls at Soundlab Studios in 2001, and recording FM Knives at Retrofit Studios in 2002, and also at Beers Books, where Ed Carroll worked, in 2003.
“When he did The Deftones side project, Team Sleep,” Soriano told me, “another studio guy, John Baccigaluppi, clued him into the reality that labels have recording budgets and he can’t under-charge a band like the Deftones. They might be friends, but they are supported by BANK.” Baccigaluppi was the publisher of Tape Op Magazine, and he owned the commercial Enharmonik Studios. When they relaunched Enharmonki as the private studio, The Hanger, Baccigaluppi put Woodhouse in charge of it. That’s where Woodhouse recorded bands like Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, and The Troublemakers.
Others recorded themselves on four-track at The Loft: Guitarist Kendon Smith recorded originals and covers with Tozer, Offer, and Ed Carroll, including The Smiths’ “This Charming Man,” whose guitar part Tozer nailed. And Tozer and Soriano did a four-track one-off called Drifter and The Shadow. Tozer was Drifter the guitarist, Soriano played drums as the Shadow. Part of that was recorded in Soriano’s bathroom.
Despite the open spirit of the place, no one recorded any live shows professionally through a board at The Loft. People in the audience would sometimes film parts of shows on VHS cameras. And Soriano remembers Miller occasionally recording shows on a primitive, handheld cassette recorder—and that he possibly recorded Boulevard Park Trio playing a few shows and rehearsals on a boombox—but that’s it. Tozer doesn’t remember that. He mostly remembers The Loft’s effect on peoples’ lives.
“From the 1980s until just a few years ago,” the Sacramento Bee reported in 2016, “Sacramento had a thriving network of underground art and music venues, cultivating a strong punk rock and fringe arts scene. Artists say that scene is now in a lull and that not enough is being done to support a vital part of any city’s culture.” There was the busy rock club called Old Ironsides, which celebrated its 75th year in 2009. There was the long-established Cattle Club, which booked everyone from Mudhoney to Meat Puppets, and there were small notable spaces like Fool’s Foundation. There was Gallery Horse Cow in West Sacramento, which the Bee described as “a renegade live-work space for local artists, [that] was hit by a fire in 2009 after an electrical cord rubbed against a metal barrel.” There was the infamous Stucco Factory, which the Sacramento Bee described as an “artist collective at 27th and R streets in midtown [that] also succumbed to a suspected arson fire… [F]rom 1983 to 1993, the space was a hub for Sacramento’s avant-garde artists and other creative people.” Set beside the train tracks, it had broken windows, no insulation, no hot water or heat, rats crawled across the floor, but $165 a month got actor and resident Victor Wong 4,800 square feet. And there was Funcastle. Set in Liz Liles-Brown’s Midtown bungalow, it had room for 100 people, got the cops called on it all the time for noise complaints, even though shows ended at 10 p.m., and it lasted from 2008 to 2011. “If someone started a band in town, they would play at my house,” Liles-Brown told the Bee. “Right now, we’re getting skipped over (by out-of-town bands) because there’s nowhere for underground, DIY bands to play. You need to create spaces where like-minded people can have fun and be creative together.” Only Old Ironsides lasted over 10 years.
The Loft endured for many reasons. Its location in an alley away from houses kept the sound in the alley, and it meant that parked cars and a hedgerow concealed anyone hanging outside. People were cool and respectful. Soriano was a self-described “benevolent dictator” who had a few firm rules people followed. Berkeley’s legendary DIY punk club Gilman Street started the same way: as a raucous safe space free of racism, sexism, homophobia, and alcohol, where kids were empowered and free to be themselves, and queer punk bands like Pansy Division could play. The Loft shared Gilman’s M.O., and Soriano applied what he’d learned with Stewart Katz in the 1980s about permitting, fire codes, police harassment, handling money, and how to keep a venue out of trouble. “I ran a pretty tight operation and people knew how they were expected to behave. There were very few rules—no obvious drinking, no smoking, no drug use, no racism, sexism, homophobia or any other behavior that made people feel like they couldn’t come to shows there, no fighting, pick up after yourself—pretty much the minimum needed for any venue to not get shut down. I drilled it in people’s heads that they could not shit where they lived, and expected them to understand and honor that...and if they didn’t the hammer came down hard, which didn’t happen too often.” There were only 10 police visits and 10 fights in 10 years.
Despite these simple rules, there was a lot of rebellion. “Scott was incredibly savvy and worked so hard to keep that place afloat,” Patrone remembered. “We were so mean to him. We couldn’t help ourselves.”
“We had a ‘no drinking’ policy,” Soriano told me, “which meant, in practice, ‘Don’t drink out of a bottle or can that says BEER on it, or out of a red cup.’” Patrone’s friends didn’t listen.
“Fuck no!” said Patrone. “We wouldn’t hide it at all. We wouldn’t do anything to meet him halfway. We’d be sitting on parking blocks in this parking lot, on 21st, which is a major artery, open to the street, drinking openly. Not two kids. There’d be like 75 kids there in plain view, very much under age.”
Confronting them did little to help.
Soriano was older. He was more politically engaged than the others, who weren’t into politics. “He was a Tim Yohannan dude, super political, Marxist, and very serious, but he’s hanging out with a bunch of apolitical oafs. I don’t think any of us knew who our fucking city council person was, who our state representative was. None of us knew any of that shit.” As the older “authority” at The Loft, the young punks naturally turned against him and made his life difficult. “He was like that teacher you were a prick to in school and gave no credit. Then later you realized how much he knew and all this experience they had. He was cool. We were dicks.”
Yah Mos drummer Mike Guis would drink and tell Soriano things like, “What? The universe is telling me to have this beer.” Patrone can imagine Guis grumbling about Soriano being “a fucking hall monitor.” Everyone who knew Guis remembered how he called joyless rule makers hall monitors. A reference to the public school staff and student volunteers who were stationed in the halls to ensure order, that was Guis’ phrase for anybody trying to put the kibosh on a little innocent fun. Cops, security guards, store clerks, parents, teachers all were obvious hall monitors, but the term applied to anyone who tried to put you down. Guis wouldn’t groan, “Oh, the authorities or The Man.” For him it was “Bunch of fucking hall monitors.” These petty people nitpicked about minor things: “Don’t do this here, don’t do that there, put that beer away.’ “Like, is that really that big a priority?” Patrone remembered. “Am I endangering people? You’re being a hall monitor right now.” Sure, what you were doing might be against the law, and it might have been unwise, but in his mind, certain minor things didn’t break the spirit, only the letter, of the law. Pettiness went against Guis’ sense of freedom and outlaw nature. It also went against his conception of human nature. “In Guis’ mind everybody was a good person inside. If you treat them bad, they’re going to act bad. ‘Hall monitor’ was a deep expression if you think about it.”
But public underage drinking posed a major legal problem for places like The Loft.
Big shows sometimes left a hundred kids drinking in the open, spilling onto the sidewalk. Soriano would politely ask them, “Please, can you just move 10 feet this way?” Patrone remembers people would snap: “Fuck you!” “The expectations were so low and easy to follow,” Patrone said with a laugh. “He was like, ‘You can drink out here, just stand over here. Please.’ We’d be like, ‘Fuck that. I’m not doing that!’ Literally five feet that way. Scott cleaned up the cans and cigarette butts afterwards. No one would help. He started charging two dollars for shows at one point. You would’ve thought he killed the fucking Lindbergh Baby. Everybody was all, ‘Fuck you! I can’t fucking believe this!’ That policy stopped quick and went back to being free. Because it was all free. This was two dollars. For great bands. ‘Fuck that, I’m not paying that!’ He’d have to pass around a bucket. To get some band to get to this Podunk place, you had to pay them at least 50 bucks. I’m sure he had to pay tons of cash out of his own pocket. We were terrible people. It wasn’t like we were 10 years old. We were in our 20s. We were old enough to be decent human beings. We couldn’t even do that. And still to this day people in Sac talk about, ‘Oh Soriano, fuck that guy!’ There are people in their 40s complaining what a horrible person he is. Like: He kept us down, man. That $2 policy really ruined our lives.”
Patrone played with Soriano in the punk band Los Huevos. He remembers going out on tour, when he was about 22 and first moved to Sac. “I was so impressed that they‘d go on these nationwide tours,” said Patrone. “Soriano is a hustler. I thought, ‘This is gonna be great. I’m just going to get to travel around, these songs are hella easy.’ We brought Ed Carroll as a buffer because Ed’s really funny, and we’d all get so pissed at each other that we needed a big court jester to keep the mood up. That was another way that Soriano was really smart. He knew: Everybody loves Ed. If Ed’s not playing in the band, he’ll keep his cool, because what does he care? He’s just there for fun. It’s a trip for him. Soriano had this book called Strike! It sat on the front seat of our tour van. It was about the workers movement. We were merciless with him. We’d show up at a club at like 6 p.m. and be like, ‘Okay Scott, sit here with all the equipment, we’re going to go explore the town.’ So Soriano would sit there for hours, to hold our place in line. We’d get to go eat. Have some beers. Go to a museum. Go to a ball game! So one day on the drive, Ed goes, ‘Poor Soriano. He hasn’t cracked page 1 of Strike!’ The poor guy couldn’t get a fucking break, man. He worked so hard to maintain The Loft. He really knew what he was doing and we did not appreciate it. He just wanted like five minutes to read the Strike! Instead of run around picking us up. Now when he sees us at the bookstore where he works in the Bay, it’ll be like, ‘Okay. Hey.’ We have history. We’re like family that you can’t just ignore, but he’ll reluctantly acknowledge us. You can tell he’s like, ‘You guys made my life such fucking hell. Fuck you.’”
Patrone still can’t believe The Loft lasted 10 years. “I think what saved it is its location in Lavender Heights.”
Sacramento was pretty conservative, and back then, Midtown’s main gay bars were located in what people called Lavender Heights. These bars were close to The Loft. After a number of cases of police harassment, where cops purportedly yelled hostile, disrespectful things at queer and trans people, city officials created a policy that prohibited the police from monitoring or driving-by Lavender Heights unless they the gay bars called them directly for help. Meaning, unless there was somebody actively gay bashing people and the bar or citizens specifically requested police assistance. “Because that shit happened in Sacramento,” said Patrone. “College kids would drive around town using homophobic slurs, harassing people. So unless one of the bars called the police, the police were not going to come do drive-bys in that neighborhood. The police probably agreed because they were sick of getting civil rights violations and people on their ass, accusing the cops of shouting things at them, and suing the city, so they had this mutual understanding. The Loft being in the middle of all that, meant they benefited from not getting any drive-bys either. But it’s one of those classic, American, fucked up situations where you can have 75 white kids flagrantly breaking the law, and the cop will just patiently say, ‘Guys, move it, come on.’ Not: There’s fucking rioting out there! I’m sure the fact that it was a bunch of white kids had a lot to do with the cops’ limited presence.”
Some of its longevity was luck. In 2016, the Oakland warehouse that housed an illegal artist collective called the Ghost Ship caught fire during a show, killing 36 of the approximately 100 attendees. These sorts of DIY events and living situations had been going on for decades with few problems, but the tragedy started a national conversation about urban live/work spaces. Ghost Ship was permitted for industrial not residential or entertainment purposes. The loss of life also amplified a dialogue around the cultural importance—some would say the necessity—of such vibrant gathering places to be permitted in cities. In expensive areas like The Bay, with a dense, ambitious artistic population and long history of culture-making, artists need inexpensive places to live and work and share ideas—places like Ghost Ship and The Loft. If they find or create find them, what happens to renowned cities like San Francisco and Oakland? Where do artists go? Bakersfield? Reno? Chico?
In 2017, Gabriell Garcia, owner and operator of Sacramento’s Blue Lamp music venue, told Comstock magazine: “We’re a C market, B market at best. When we took over four years ago, we had bands telling us they skip Sacramento and play Redding.” Sure, maybe for commercial touring bands, but not the scrappy, get-in-done underground. In the ’90s, The Loft was a big deal.
Even though the wiring was safe, The Loft was illegal because it was a fire hazard: there was only one way in and one way out. “The only reason the place was illegal was due to the fire code,” Soriano told me. “I had long experience doing shows in Sac before The Loft and knew that if I didn’t try to get permits or make it official, there was little that they could do. That is why we did donation. As soon as we had a door price, we were a business and subject to their rules, which meant getting a permit that they’d never issue. Technically, we were throwing parties. As long as there were no complaints about sound or unruliness, they didn’t have much to bust us on.”
As much as Soriano did, he wasn’t the only one who ran The Loft. Over the course of ten years, about six people helped book shows and organize and manage the events. “Both Kendon [Smith] and especially [Scott] Torguson were very important parts of the Loft,” Soriano said. Other important contributors and influences include Pam Davis, a musician who also did the Alphabet Threat and Dropout zines, Tanya Morgan, who fronted the band The Phlemings, Victoria Montana, Vickie Peterson, and Nic Offer. Those who booked shows also ran them. “While I was there at a lot of shows, they were responsible for keeping the crowd in line, the show on time, and paying the band,” Soriano said. “One of the remarkable things about the Loft is while I was 100% in charge, people were mostly left to police themselves. They kept people from harassing others, they broke up fights, etcetera. They fudged as much as they could with beer, but within reason. The only thing that they didn’t do is clean the fucking bathrooms.”
“I know this is an unpopular opinion with a lot of music aficionados,” Offer said, “but one of the first punk things I bought was Black Flag My War, and I didn’t like it. I don’t like it today. I’m not that guy. Then Tristan played me Black Flag’s pre-Rollins singles, Everything Went Black, while we’d been doing The Yah Mos. But The Yah Mos were more of a Smiths type thing. We weren’t really resonating with anyone. We kind of just took a couple of our Smiths-y songs and sped them up, because we liked Black Flag. I remember Tristan specifically saying, ‘What if we just, like, did Black Flag?’ And we instantly liked it.”
Others liked it, too. Some were cynical about these suburban kids.
“People were like, ‘Oh cool, these guys from Rancho Cordova,’ being pretty patronizing and stuff, but it started turning into this thing where we were getting better and better with each show, and suddenly we were upstaging the cool punk bands in town. Nobody really liked many of the cool punk bands, but they had the cool people in them. It was like that. You’d go to see them because it was something to do. And then when people were going to our show and actually liked us, it was like ‘Well, The Yah Mos are good!’ It was a strange shift.”
As with most youth culture, divisions existed in Sac’s ’90s punk scene. There was a little territoriality, with the Sac people skeptical of the suburban people. Some people perceived cliquey distinctions: the super cool K Records/indie-pop/riot grrrl people versus the hardcore people versus the skater punk people. The Yah Mos didn’t fit into any of those circles, even though they appreciated certain elements of each. “When I moved downtown in 92,” Offer remembered, “I was hanging out with some industrial guys, kind of hanging with the skater punks. The industrial guys were cool, and they turned me on the acid, but they were into stuff that I wasn’t into. I would hang with the skater guys. Then at that time, a local band called Tiger Trap was blowing up, they would bring all kinds of interesting bands into town, like Nation of Ulysses, and K Records bands like Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, and Heavens to Betsy, and we’d see them at the Bean Sprout [Factory] compound where we recorded the Boulevard Park Trio record. So they were putting on shows there and we’d go see those bands. And that was exciting! I liked that. It embodied the punk that we liked. But there was a split.”
The skater punks could be sexist assholes. They were bitter at Tiger Trap because Tiger was cool, female, and blowing up. Yah Mos liked to skate but hated skate punks’ sexism and attitudes. Yah Mos were feminist, PC, not straight edge but mostly vegan, and they stood in the middle of these clicky camps, because Tiger Trap was awesome but a little too cool for the Rancho kids. “And that was when we were kicking a lot of the other punk bands’ asses,” said Offer. “There was no place for us really.” Until they found The Loft.
The Alphabet Threat zine was based out of The Loft. (Quote: Recipe for Landlord Lunchmeat: “Last time we guided all you flesh freaks through the steps needed to make that refreshing summer treat, Copsicles, and now I’m back again to satisfy your insatiable desire for even more blood and slaughter.”) For a few years, Soriano ran a record store out of the space. The Yah Mos liked its anarcho feel. “They were having punk shows in the back,” said Offer, “but they didn’t really have a scene around it. They were just free and open people who would let anybody come. They were older punk people, so they liked old fast punk. When they saw The Yah Mos they went Hey, this is cool. Why don’t you guys play here? So he started playing there a lot. It was a good place. They were throwing out-of-town bands on stage with locals. It was no scene. It was like these vegan-y, anarchist, PC, older type punks—not old, but older than us 19-year olds. Since they were welcoming to us, we were like, okay, cool. The thing about it was that it felt flexible. It didn’t have anything defined. Whereas the skater punks were defined as this. The K Records, Tiger Trap punks were defined as that. At The Loft, there was no definition. We could just be us. That’s when we started to play shows there and hang out.”
Offer reads a lot of rock biographies. Music books give him perspective on the currents of culture and help him understand the innumerable social, cultural, economic, and accidental forces that shape everyone’s lives, particularly musicians. Reading David Byrne’s book Why Music Matters, he saw parallels between The Loft and CBGB’s—the New York City club that Byrne’s band Talking Heads came of age in during the 1970s and ’80s, alongside iconic bands like Blondie, The Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Bad Brains, The Dead Boys, and The B-52s.
“When Byrne talks about the seven things that made CBGB’s the club where things could happen, you could tic off each of those boxes for the loft. It was exactly the same. The way different kind of people who think different things are interacting and going to this place because it’s the place to go, but they’re influencing each other in ways they don’t know. Then of course the whole no star thing, which was not such a revolutionary concept for The Loft, but was a revolutionary concept back in 77. To us, The Loft never seemed like a cool thing, and we never felt like the cool people at the center of it. It just felt where we were. Once the skater punks started getting mad at us and calling us ‘The Loft fags,’ it was like, ‘Wait, what? This is a thing that other people feel alienated from?’ We were always the alienated ones. So then it was: I guess this is our spot.” Also, using homophobic slurs differentiated them: That was not The Yah Mos’ way. Others’ reactions were especially confusing.
As an inclusive place, The Loft was a place where people could be free to be themselves and anything went. How could you feel alienated from inclusion? Or define yourself in opposition to openness? It’s one thing not to feel “cool” enough to brave a certain venue or someone else’s clubhouse. It’s another to label it as elitist and unwelcoming. One is a wall others erect to exclude outsiders. One is a wall we create that excludes ourselves. “And it really was inclusive,” said Offer. “All the people who became the cool people in the scene were, like, very dorky, different people. I imagine it was the same at CBGB’s or whatever. The Ramones? Those guys were weirdos. David Byrne? He’s a total weirdo. All those alienated people were coming together and doing their thing in a place where they could be their alienated selves.”
As a quiet, slow-moving, alienated city, Sacramento facilitated a kind of freedom. “What was good about Sacramento,” said Offer, “was there was no one around that was cooler than us who could say, ‘No, punk has to be this way.’ We’d go to Berkeley and feel like we weren’t cool. Sacramento was a tiny pond that allowed us to be a big fish. Downtown, there was no one else hanging around the pond. The skater punks we don’t identify with. Tiger Trap had just left town. There was nobody to tell us different. You know? So there it was.”
Not every band is influenced by or limited by their town, but sometimes it works like it does here in Sac. Living close to the Bay Area meant you could see bigger bands play if you drove an hour to the west, and although touring bands played the Capital too, Sacramento also kept residents away from certain things. “You’re mostly seeing your friends’ cool bands,” said Offer, “and then some cool outside band now and then. I still can’t figure it out to this day, and I can’t tell if we had small town chips on our shoulders about it, but when I compare the bands that came out of the Bay Area at that time, I always thought that Sacramento bands were better. SF at that time always seemed like it was trying to be as cool as San Diego or Olympia or D.C., but it didn’t really have its own thing. Everyone tried too hard there or something. In Sac you didn’t have to try. There was nothing to try for. There was no one to impress. It was just each other. I really think that whole thing of being right next to people who are different than you, like at CBGB’s, and had different taste was perfect and a big part of what made Sacramento work. It was chilled out and relaxed, and you would just walk around all day. It was really pretty easy to live really cheap, which I think is a good thing for kids that age, to try to figure out something else other than working, and instead trying to create something. That’s exciting.”
The Yah Mos practiced at The Loft once a week, usually on Sunday afternoon, before The Loft’s regular Sunday night shows. At some point they switched to Fridays and started practicing until midnight. But Nic was living on fumes.
“I didn’t have any money,” Offer said about those first months in Midtown. “I had broken up with this girl I’d been living with, and I asked Soriano if I could crash there. Initially I lived there for about a month.”
“While one of The Loft rules was no living at The Loft,” Soriano said, “I made an exception with Nic because he was my friend, he didn’t make a mess, he’d clean up after shows, and he was kind of a night watchmen. Given how The Loft was tucked in an alley and housed over ten grand worth of music and [Woodhouse’s] recording equipment, having Nic there was great, and thwarted any attempted break-in.”
“That’s when The Loft really turned into our thing that we were taking over,” said Offer. “It was our scene, but we were also open geeky guys, so it was like: The skaters don’t think were cool, and there’s nobody else cool, so we’re kind of what’s cool, because there’s nothing else there. So our friends and people who started hanging around there are all kind of defining the scene. It was very open and fresh and felt like anything could happen.”
What the Bean Sprout was to Micah’s friends in the Tiki Men, The Loft was to The Yah Mos: a practice space where they hung out. The location played a pivotal role in both places, too. Where the thick-walled Bean Sprout’s location on a busy street away from houses meant there were no neighbors to complain, The Loft’s location in an alley helped save it from trouble that its busy location exposed it to. The arrangement shaped The Yah Mos’ creative lives. “For people our age, we were fortunate to have a practice space there,” Tozer said. “We practiced there by day, and we had it at night, too. It was like a clubhouse.”
It wasn’t a simple arrangement.
“Soriano kicked me out all the time!” Offer said with a laugh. “But I’m not mad at him. He did me one of the great solids of my life by letting me live down there forever.”
Offer would crash somewhere else for a while then move back in. When James Williams’ grandmother died, he eventually had to leave Rancho Cordova at age 19, so he briefly crashed at The Loft, too. But Soriano would flare up: No you can’t live here anymore, you have to move out! A Vietnam vet named Larry lived beneath them for a while, and Larry would get mad because the boys were talking too loudly or making noise. “We were 19-year-old kids,” said Offer. “Seems like we would’ve been loud, even though we felt like we were trying to be quiet.” There was also Nic’s inevitable mess. “When Larry lived there you couldn’t use the bathroom, so I would always piss in Gatorade bottles. Scott will come up there and there would be like six Gatorade bottles by the door. He’s like, ‘I’m trying to run a fuckin’ practice space-club here, and your bottles of piss are right there.’ It was always a bit frayed. You know, Scott’s quite a character. So we would get in arguments.”
For a while Offer moved back-and-forth between The Loft and a place called The Dead Lady’s House. As literary, punk, and politically engaged as Soriano was—he organized protests against the first Gulf War and was involved in the underground poetry scene—he always had enough side-hustles and under-the-table ventures going to qualify as an operator—smart and worldly, but a businessman trying to turn a dollar to survive and afford himself enough freedom to enjoy his time. One short-lived side-hustle was a rental he called The Dead Lady’s House.
Soriano rented a small nanny shack in the back of an elderly woman’s house in midtown. It was a short walk from The Loft. While he lived there, the woman died, so he ended up watching the house for a few years. When he would kick Offer and Williams out, he’d say, “Well, you can stay in The Dead Lady’s House.” So, without permission from the dead lady’s heirs, Offer and Williams would briefly move in.
It was an old house, fully furnished, with a beautiful atrium, and located near the Safeway where The Yah Mos shopped and shoplifted. In the evenings, Offer and Williams would hang out in the kitchen, listening to oldies on the local Cruisin’ 1470 oldies station. And they’d thumb through this Billboard Top10 book, which catalogued the top 10 or 20 songs week by week, laughing as they tried to figure out who had the number one song at pivotal points in their lives. “It was a very oldies-centered experience,” said Williams. “As far as being a 19-year-old kid who just got kicked out of the house, it was a really great place to crash land. Living rent free, having this hideout, learning about R&B that way—it was a great period of my life. We had so much freedom to focus on music. It was a springboard for the band. Things might have been different if one of us had to have a serious job.” He got on welfare, too.
“But The Dead Lady’s House finally got sold,” said Offer, “so I moved back to The Loft.”
In this small punk and garage rock corner of Sacramento’s ’90s-era musical underground, everyone seemed to know each other. Ultimately, this wasn’t a scene. It was a bunch of friends who played music. “I could go, what, listen to headphones in my basement all day,” said drummer Ed Carroll, “or I could go play a simple rock song with my friends. That’s the way to go.” That’s how their Sac worked. Instead of devoting themselves to sports or wrenching on cars, friends played music, searched thrift stores for vintage crap, and drank together. Despite different names and different styles, so many bands shared members who also often lived together, went to school together, worked together, dated, promoted, recorded, produced, and released each other’s music, until the overlap created what resembled one big incestuous Venn diagram that included the bands Nar, The Bananas, Tiki Men, The Lazy J’s, Lil Bunnies, Los Huevos, FM Knives, The Knockoffs, Lizards, Sea Pigs, The Trouble Makers, Horny Mormons, Mayyors, Karate Party, Caboose, Pounded Clown, Genital Chowder, Cake, Deathray, Laughing Jesus, The Deftones, Daisy Spot, Sex66, the Bright Ideas, out of the ’90s on into the 2000s with Lyme Regis, The Pretty Girls, Th’ Losin Streaks, English Singles, Rock the Light, The Pizzas, RAD, then full circle back around to one of Scott Miller’s first bands, the Bagpipe Operation, which he formed in 1989 at age 19, further back to Sacramento’s criminally overlooked 1960s psych band Public Nuisance and Sac’s ’70’s new wave alien-punk band Twinkeyz, to name a few. And then there was Secret Center Records at the center of it, while Soriano booked some of these bands at The Loft and released them on his Moo-La-La Records and S-S Label, and Woodhouse and others like Dave Houston recorded them. Sacramento is incredible.
“Sacramento is pretty inbred,” punk fan Dave Smith wrote on his Sacramento Inbred Band Project. “[T]here’s only like 10 people that are in all these bands.” It was the same with early underground Seattle. Between 1983 and 1987, the legendary U-Men played for what Mudhoney singer Mark Arm calls “a bleak backwater landscape populated by maybe 200 people.” In the late-80s, the audience at early shows by Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, and other now-legendary bands were mostly filled with the bands’ friends. Barely anyone outside that friend network was paying attention. Sac and Seattle were very different places with very different aesthetics and influences, but ultimately the same isolation from mainstream America and the same sense of invisibility produced extremely creative, self-motivated people who entertained themselves. The big difference is Seattle gets all the attention. Some people in Seattle courted it.
Sub Pop, Seattle’s most famous record label, mixed an underground aesthetic with a corporate approach to hit-making. Thanks to their embrace of success and use of hype to sell music, the early ’90s was the Grunge Era. And while Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains was selling throughout the world, and the world was descending on Seattle, these guys were doing their own weird thing in the shadows in Sac. I was 19. I was visiting Seattle for the first time, looking for Mark Arm and Kim Thayil’s faces in the downtown crowds, completely unaware of who The Sonics were and what garage rock was. I was Sub Pop’s target demographic. These Sac bands celebrated obscurity and lived rock ‘n’ roll, rejecting publicity and avoiding visibility so they could just drink their beer and make their music. To them, the less you knew the better.
Started in 1998, Smith’s inbred band project systematically cross-referenced numerous Sac punk bands in what it called a “degrees of type index.” The site looked more like a printout from a 1997 dot matrix printer than a website, and that was refreshing in our time of endless scroll. And it was very detailed.
Now 50 years old and a globe-trotting, motorcycle-riding ESL teacher, Smith started seeing shows regularly in Sacramento around 1984, at the height of California punk rock. Even though he didn’t consider himself a musician, he played in obscure punk bands like Milhouse SMF, Lil Bunnies, and the Star Trek-themed No Kill I. (Lyric: “I think I’m drinking Klingonese / I think I’m drinking Klingonese / I really drink so.”) In his late 20s he wanted to keep track of all of these bands that came and went so quickly. So Smith started this index on 3 X 5 index cards while drinking with his friend Ed Hunter, guitarist for Los Huevos. Like so much in Sac, it has half a joke, but the serious half was done well. For a few drunken hours, they listed bands and band members on index cards, along with people the members had dated, and if members worked at Tower Records, or the legislative accountability organization Statenet, or both. StateNet was located at 21st & K, about 500 feet from The Loft, putting many of StateNet’s musician employees close to one of their weekend hangouts. “It was amazing how much stuff we could come up with off the top of our heads,” Smith wrote on his website. The inbred part of the project was both musical and literal. “Part of the entire thing started with jokes about the herpes strain that most of Sacramento seemed to be passing back and forth,” Smith told me. “We were coming up with a list of who might’ve given it to who. Ah man, the asshole I was in my 20s.” He added that Herpes Pathology would be a good name for a Sacramento music compilation. “When you build a time machine,” he said, “find me in the early ’90s and tell me to use that.”
The reason he wanted to track all this was because the city’s musical underworld managed to be populated by so few people yet produce such a staggering, tangled volume of recordings. Bands came and went. Seven-inch records were everywhere, along with one-off cassette singles, compilations, and homemade demos. It was amazing. It was confusing. Ed Hunter described Sac as a little river town where “rock ‘n’ roll bands are born and killed and heard by very few.” Whatever values other music scenes operated according to, this scene was about fun and rebirth. Sacramento’s slow pace and easy-going attitude permeated the music community. People played to entertain themselves and each other. “We were out there, man,” said Ed Carroll. “We were making our own fun.” They didn’t often care to promote their stuff too much. They made it and let it live its own life. Accidents could be fruitful. Attachments were intense but less constrained by long-term vision. It’s the kind of town where one of the greatest ’60s psychedelic garage bands of all time—Public Nuisance, on par with The Seeds and The Standells, a band whose songs belonged on the legendary Nuggets compilations—could record two albums worth of material and let it sit on some shelf, unreleased, for over 30 years. It’s the kind of town where the only recorded music by one of its first hardcore bands, The R.C. Boys, surfaced on a cassette tape thirty years after it was made. It’s the kind of town where the band The Bananas was formed to fill a last-minute opening at a club show, and members chose their name by flipping randomly through the dictionary, only to develop an international following that still attends their shows 30 years later. Even when the music wasn’t punk, Sac’s approach was. One band spun off into another band spun off into another. People describe things as side-projects, which I’m guilty of too, but the index suggests more bands were side-projects than not. Put another way, there were fewer consistent “working bands” that toured. They played California, often not far from home, at places that paid in beer or food, if at all. Music wasn’t their profession. Longevity wasn’t the goal. The point was the moment, newness, freshness, something to do on Friday nights, or any night, actually. Mainstream America wanted longevity, visibility, and stars with a narrative arc. If bands didn’t enjoy financial success then listeners had better at least get a dramatic story of a band’s hard times to enjoy on a TV biopic. That wasn’t Sac. Its underground bands weren’t machines built to endure endless usage. They were molecular reactions. Members harnessed the energy inside the new chemical combination of musicians and left after the explosion to form new combinations. When people say bands “imploded,” the term implies a dramatic ending, explosive destruction, release, even tragedy. Many of these bands didn’t implode. They just stopped, unraveled, fizzled, ran their course. In place of an explosion, there was often silence. No one got too upset about it, and if they did, members often kept it to themselves to keep things cordial. Sometimes members didn’t even discuss that their band ended! They just resumed playing in something else. Besides endings, the idea of bands “imploding” suggests something about vivacity, not just about endings. Sacramento and Secret Center gave people permission to let bands dissolve and to thrive on newness. Avoidant of self-promotion, distrustful of corporate interests, people cared less about making a living off their music than they did living a musical life. And while they lived it, the bins of Sac record stores filled with gnat-like bands who only released a few records before evaporating like water on a summer sidewalk, because as Dave Smith pointed out, “Sacramento is hot as fuck in August.” Tozer described Boulevard Park’s life as “a mayfly-like existence.” To him, the whole decade of short-lived bands “all felt kind of one piece.” Although many locals found Sac boring, this approach was appealing.
“For a brief period in the 1990s,” Smith told me, “Sacramento had some of the pull that Portland had. People actually moved here for the music scene. I remember conversations with a band who was trying to decide if they should move here or Portland. I can’t remember what band. I think they were from North Carolina. A group of people from Ohio moved out here and a large group from Santa Cruz moved here, including the band The Four Eyes. Most of them moved away after a couple years.”
Writing about The FM Knives’ 2003 tour, St. Louis’ alt-weekly described the members as “veterans of a dozen Sacramento punk and garage bands you’ve probably never heard of, FM Knives is the tip of the iceberg of a scene that could make Sacramento the next Olympia or Chapel Hill or, um, Omaha or something.”
Others tried to keep track of the inbreeding. Soriano once had an online discography of Sacramento records from the 1960s through the 1990s. Someone else may have, too, though because of a dead hard drive and a brain injury incurred from a mugging coming home from an Evaporators show at The Loft, Smith couldn’t remember anything more about that. Unlike Smith’s, those other sites were no longer online.
Although Sac’s musical landscape was too convoluted to fully map, Smith’s unfinished index was large enough to reveal one of this creative community’s essential characteristics: people shared—not only herpes but ideas. Instead of a series of linear biographies, where bands moved through time from unknowns to knowns, poor artists to working artists, this scene was like a Jackson Pollock painting finished by Salvador Dali, with bands splattered all over the place and time looping back on itself, connecting in a kind of crazy constellation that spiraled in place as one long day, as Miller put it. Some bands were just singular blips, but many of their songs, even if too few outsiders heard them, have stood the test of time: Public Nuisance’s “Going Nowhere,” Twinkeyz’s “Sweet Nothing,” The Lazy J’s “She’s So Refined,” English Singles’ “Not Talking Anymore,” Nar’s “Holiday Routine,” The Bananas’ “The Beginning of the End,” “Go National’s “Indyanna,” Karate Party’s “Pressure,” FM Knives’ “Keith Levine,” Tiki Men’s “Black Cat,” and Boulevard Park Trio’s “Another Crush.” For a supposedly backwards town where nothing happened, Sac sure had a lot of cool stuff happening.
When I contacted drummer Ed Carroll about one of his bands, The Lazy J’s, I explained that my interest started by writing this expansive story about The Boulevard Park Trio. Carroll laughed. “That cracks me up,” he said. “Because nobody would write about the Boulevard Park Trio unless they understood what was going on. That’s an obscure ass band.” Agreed.
For Carroll’s friends, music is friendship, because music is relational. It’s something you enjoy with other people. Sure, it’s something you listen to by yourself too, be it while biking, working, gardening, tripping on acid, but it’s something you also do as a tribe. This makes it easier to let go of bands, because when the band ends, the relationships endure. “Band stuff gets complicated when you’re in a band with your closest friends, so you have to learn how. You don’t want to argue too much because it affects your relationship with your friends. It gets really intertwined.” So they break up, save the friendship, and start something else. These bands’ short lifespans isn’t apathy. It’s not disregard. It’s an ethic, a way of relating loosely to the band as a unit in order to respect relationships as a larger unit. “We’re so close that if things weren’t goin’ well, people would be more willing to abandon the band and save the friendship and just kind of move on. I’ve been in bands with my best friends and never talked about breaking up. We just stopped playin’! And we never bring it up! It’s like, ‘Yeah, we stopped.’” He laughed. “Nobody was trying to get big. Of course people out of Sacramento did get big. Cake and Deftones, who started in the same ranks as us, got huge. Deftones worked in the Tower magazine warehouse with the rest of us, you know? We were just kind of like ‘Yes, this is what we do.’ And it was enough success for what we could expect. We’re like ‘Wow, people want to come see it.’ That was enough.”
The bands just move on.
“It’s weird to think about,” said Carroll. “I think about it a lot, because it’s such a big part of my life. I’ve spent so much time sluggin’ it out with the same 8 or 10 people. Oh, we’re in different bands, but I pretty much play in the same thing. Different arrangements.” Carroll called them interchangeable. “To us, we just kept on goin’. We just kept playin’ in bands. So The Lazy J’s stopped? Okay, I’ll pick up with Nar and wait till something else comes along. I was in The Pretty Girls, then FM Knives, then Lyme Regis, then English Singles, and Arts and Leisure with Tim White and his wife Gerri right now. It just kind of flowed. I never worried about it.”
Nic Offer agrees. “I used to play in James’s pop band The New States. It was allowed to be more his thing. It was a Dusty Springfield, Smith-y type group. If you have your own outlet to express yourself, you really don’t mind playing by somebody else’s rules, or being the bass player for their band if they need it. That’s why those bands kind of work. You’re not as bitchy about the way the songs go, and you’ll just help a friend out. I think that’s the way a lot of those Sac bands do that.” This process was never something he and his friends thought about with The Yah Mos or otherwise. They just did it. “I saw Tristan almost start up other bands like that,” Offer said. “He’d be jamming with a couple guys that afternoon, and he’d have a name—like, we’re doing this band now, and this is this kind of style—and those bands didn’t takeoff or whatever.”
Whatever was the operative term.
And even if all these band lineups’ resembled inbreeding to some people, it didn’t seem to have led to the sort of inbreeding that causes genetic deformities or limits musical variety – stopping the genetic lineage with infertile offspring. Different styles persisted here, possibly thrived here, and the churning talent pool kept refreshing itself long into the 2000s. These musicians were passionate listeners who were always discovering new music. With a growing base-level of music knowledge, from vintage to modern sounds, they always have a huge range of influences. “Nobody in any of the bands I’ve been in says Hey, we want to sound like this,” said Carroll. “We just start playin’. All these people are big-time music people, record people.” They know everything from Television Personalities to Felt, Kinks to The Undertones, Swell Maps to Downliner’s Sect to Coltrane to Hendrix—not in an annoying pretentious way. In an appreciative way. They’re not strictly performers. They’re listeners. “It’s in the DNA.”
The band short-lived band English Singles was Ed Carroll, Tristan Tozer, Scott Miller, and bassist Tony Cale—four friends who had never played before in that configuration, and thrived as long as the relationships could sustain it. “Some of the songs are older songs that Scott had kickin’ around,” said Carroll. “We had Tristan and his crazy 12-string playin’. That band was hard, different personalities. We broke up without ever saying anything. We just kind of drifted apart, band wise. We would all hang out together, but we wouldn’t talk about the band. We just kind of went ‘Eh, what’s the point.’ There’s some interesting personalities in that band. The bass player Tony was another old childhood friend. He was a pretty intense dude. So it was a weird dynamic, but we all had a good time together. It was wasn’t that all of us were communicating with each other. If I have an issue, I’ll be like, ‘Come on let’s talk about it, dude. Let’s get this done.’ The three of them did not want to engage in that, so after a while the pressure built up somewhere in there. We had one show that was our last show ever, and we just kind of stopped.” It sounds like a stereotypically male way of dealing with conflict: Instead of talking about the conflict directly, you choose to stop doing what’s causing the trouble and continue on with your lives. Forgive, forget, and move on. “That’s exactly it. It’s the only way to keep going, because you don’t wanna lose your friends over it. No song’s worth that. But English Singles was lucky to get what we did, we had a good run. We probably could’ve done more, or done less. Who knows? FM Knives had two people that didn’t get along. In a band, all it takes is one person who doesn’t wanna be in it. You’re done. It doesn’t matter how much you want to keep going, or what you have going, if somebody’s in a band that doesn’t wanna be in it, you’re at their mercy. You can’t convince them or beg them to stay, because they don’t want to do it. So you have to get philosophical about it, and go ‘Well, that’s it. It’s not what I expected. It’s not what I wanted. But that’s what it was. You can get pissed or you can move on, or both!” He laughed. He often did. It’s probably how he survived. “But you can’t hold a grudge. That’s what they wanted to do. Imagine trying to write an article with four people and then one guy at the end says, ‘Nah, I’m not doing it anymore!’ Then the article never comes out. You want to know about songs that got recorded and never came out? There you go. Someone dropped out, the songs went in the can, and you never saw them again.”
Friendships are the challenge and also the strength of this community. All it took was one member of Yah Mos who couldn’t full commit to that band to lead to the birth of The Boulevard Park Trio. And all it took for Tiki Men to end was one member’s listening habits to expand beyond the band’s primary style.
Among the many rock bios Nic Offer reads, the REM one he was reading when we spoke, Robert Dean Lurie’s Begin the Begin, gave him insight into Sacramento. “It’s great because it’s more about the Athens scene than one band. All these friends are living in houses next to each other, it’s very much like a punk house scene. It’s Athens, so there’s no ‘cool thing,’ and they can do whatever they want. The B-52s had already moved to New York.” Another part of REM’s story that struck him was how many Athens bands shared members. Some of them were playing in Love Tractor. Some were very experimental. REM singer Michael Stipe used tape loops and multi-tracking in his solo band, 1066 Gaggle O’ Sound, he played organ in the prog band Tanzplagen, and in the experimental band Boat Of with noise musician Tom Smith. Maybe it wasn’t inbred, but all Athens’ overlapping projects, creative freedom, and low cost of living reminded him of Sac. Unless artists have a bunch of money, low overhead is vital to the arts, because working less frees them to create more. You can’t separate this creative community’s activity from Sacramento’s low cost of living in the ’90s. Back then, Sac was as good for artists as early New York City. “There were no rules,” Offer said. “You decided what things were, and it was cheap to do your own thing.”
Drugs ravaged parts of the late-80s punk scene, but this wasn’t a druggy scene. It was beer-y. Tons of really cheap beer was always flowing. And yet, The Yah Mos didn’t really drink. They weren’t straight edge. They just weren’t into it. “When drugs later came into the scene, it was LSD,” said Tozer. “I was always like, ‘No, I’m not gonna do that.’ Someone did it first, then another person fell, and finally I did it. It was like Whoa, this is crazy, but that was it. We never drank heavy at all. We virtually tee-totled the whole time in Yah Mos and Boulevard Park. Until The Lazy J’s.” And by “someone” and “another person,” Tozer meant Offer and Williams.
“We weren’t crazy partiers at the time,” said Offer. “Soda was our thing. We’d definitely take a break and get a soda.” But after moving to Midtown, Offer’s downtown industrial friends turned him on to acid. As a creative person, its effects were exciting. He turned on James. It wasn’t a party drug. They would reserve blocks of time to trip, then walk around Midtown, talk about The System and The Man and cosmic revelations, then listen carefully to dollar records at The Loft or The Dead Lady’s House, coming up with occasional musical revelations like We need to do more stereo panning on the next record. “It was an exciting time for that kind of thing.”
After a few years playing, The Yah Mos released their debut, the Right On EP in 1993. That same year, Tozer and his younger sister told their mom, “We’re out of here. Rancho is the worst place to live on the planet!” He already spent a lot of time downtown, and soon, after his sister graduated from high school, his family moved into to a two-bedroom apartment near one of the grassy strips in Boulevard Park.
After letting Offer sleep on The Loft’s stage, Soriano cleared him a spot under the narrow wooden stairs. That became Offer’s bedroom for the next five years. His life was just a mattress, records, a boombox, and tapes. And CDs after they replaced tapes in the late-90s. “I would hang out upstairs there during the day, before the downstairs turned into a record store, which Scott ran for a few years, starting around 1994.” (Soriano called his store the Hindenburg, “a joke reference to the store going down in flames quickly.”) Offer had free reign upstairs, so he’d listen to his tapes, have his records laying around, then he’d pick up and leave when bands practiced between 6 and 10pm. He’d hang at his friends’ place, some of whom eventually formed the band Out Hud and lived at their practice space, too, then he’d return to The Loft at night to see shows or sleep, frequently staying up late listening to dollar records at low volume.
“It wasn’t a bad place,” said Offer. “Everyone was always thinking, You live under the stairs? When the alternative was having a job like my friends to pay for some apartment, man, I was fucking fine living under the stairs.” When Offer sang “I reject your society” in The Yah Mos, it wasn’t bluster. He had The Loft to help him back that lyric up. The Yah Mos’ song “Rent Is Due” wasn’t a complaint as much as a statement about the burdens of society he was trying to unshackle. “With Scott letting me live under the stairs, I didn’t have to have a job, I didn’t have to answer to anyone. I’d just do acid and jam and be on welfare and buy dollar records.” But he still needed money.
In addition to welfare, he lived by selling plasma. That was a popular thing to do back then, and he did it all the time. At one point toward the end of this years at The Loft, he worried what frequent plasma extraction was doing to his health, so he took a break. To replace that revenue stream, he started stealing CDs from Tower Clearance Center, where his musician friend worked, and selling them at used record stores in San Francisco where no one would recognize him or his merchandise. He told himself, “Okay, I’m going to live for a year on just stolen goods.” And he did. For longer than a year. He and his friend figured out that Tower Clearance had no alarm. “So we started robbing that place blind,” Offer said. They’d fill bags with CDs and someone they knew would check them out, but after Tyler stopped working there, they had to just steal them. That experience influenced the music he listened to. “Because you would steal everything you could, then before you went to San Francisco, you’d go, Well, I’ll listen to this African drum record. World music sold well in the Bay Area, because of all the older hippies. That sped up my taste. That got me to internet level. Listening to something a few times then listening to something else.” That was very resourceful: from stolen CDs, he got revenue and a musical education. He laughed. “We made everything stretch.”
Dollar records helped them find ways not to have to choose between food and music. “We’d get our welfare check and blow it all at the dollar record store,” remembered Offer. “You could buy a Marvin Gaye record and a ’70s Kraftwork record with Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield records. If your tastes were only shaped by something costing a dollar, that starts to build a unique sound, too. There’s no risk. If you don’t like it, who cares. That was a good way to get into Kraftwork. It’s like, People like these records? These weird German guys? Are these cool? You can buy it for a dollar!” Dollar records were so important to them that they wanted to make a bumpersticker at Kinko’s copy shop that said “Real Musicians Buy Dollar Records.” That was another fun thing for kids back then: printing homemade stickers at the Kinko’s.
Even though free rent was attractive, with no kitchen or shower, and on hot Sacramento days, the arrangement could not have been comfortable.
“When I first lived at The Loft, I would eat an avocado and a baguette from Safeway every night,” Offer remembered. “Cold beans from a can were cheap and always available quick. We definitely ate a lot of canned beans on the road. James and I were vegan for a good portion of that time, and we knew which brands of two-for-a-dollar cookies happened to be vegan, and we would really live on those. There was a microwave at The Loft for a short time, and I remember everyone laughing ’cause I was cutting up carrots with my teeth and cooking them with rice. This is absolutely ridiculous and also totally true. But I didn’t do it for very long.”
“One thing with Midtown Sac at the time—and probably common in any tight knit punk scene,” said Soriano, “is that people worked at restaurants, cafes, coffee shops, bars, movie theaters, etcetera. So, if you were in a band that people knew or contributed to the scene, you got comped meals, coffee, booze, and entertainment. Not always but a lot.”
Definitely not a lot.
“Nic was always fainting because he hadn’t had enough to eat,” Patrone remembered.
The Yah Mos stole what food they could. They stole things they didn’t need. They were cleptos, in love with the subversive act of thieving as much as they were feeding themselves without squandering their meager budgets.
“All my jackets back then would have a slit in the inner lining that I would use for casual shoplifting,” said Offer. “Grab an item, just kinda scratch your back and drop it in there and walk out the door. It inevitably ended being a sort of backpack, too. I would just carry everything in there.”
“They were incorrigible,” Petron said. “What was great about all these bands playing all these shows, was that you’d say, ‘Hey, can I go with you guys to Santa Barbara? And they’d say, ‘Yeah sure!’ So you’d get in the van and go. Because The Yah Mos played the Bay Area all the time, I went with them once. We stopped at an am/pm, and all of them were walking around stuffing their pockets. I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ They were pillaging in a comical, TV kind of way. I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is different. You guys really need all this? You need that many candy bars?’” Turns out they did.
“We were getting maybe $3 a day to eat,” said Offer. “That was a lot to us, but not enough. On their budget, they ate a lot of vegan candy and cookies.
For Patrone, the spectacle was culture shock. “They were suburban kids. It was a thing I had no concept of, just being these ragamuffins. They weren’t stealing other bands’ amps or robbing places. They were just being stealing punk asses, little feral beasts.”
Band members got into shoplifting at the same time on tour. “We started on the gas station tapes,” said Offer. “We’d be in the South, and you could pick up all these Soul tapes on gas station racks for cheap. One of the first funk albums I got into was one Tristan stole from a Memphis gas station. That was a big deal for us. We got really into it. We were emboldened by the punk righteousness of ‘Fuck the system!’ The combination of fuck the man and free stuff opened the gates.” He admitted that rationalizing their theft by targeting big businesses and chains was a little misguided, since he didn’t understand how franchising worked. “We were young. It’s what we did. It was a rush, a high.” And a high was appealing for guys who didn’t drink or do drugs. It was also part of the culture. “For a while I was too concerned with being a certain kind of punk,” said Offer. “The punk scene we were involved in was so fashion-driven that I was getting conscious and caught up in that.” He created certain rules of conduct for himself, drawing lines between what was permissible and not. “I had this thing where, I could only wear clothes that I stole from thrift stores. I couldn’t spend money. Everything I wore for years was only stolen from thrift stores. Well, stolen from anywhere. I wouldn’t have bought from department stores or something. Definitely too punk for that.” Once they learned how to steal, the world was their oyster. The thing we wanted the most were records. “We had it in our heads that The Beat was the enemy.”
The Beat was a longtime used and new Sacramento record store, an institution by many counts. Founded by Robert Fauble in 1982 near California State University Sacramento, The Beat operated in Midtown for 19 years, filling a beautiful 12,800-square-foot space that dated to the 1920s, located at J and 17th streets. Its new and used records and expensive imports attracted collectors from all over the state. Tower stores kept all the classics in stock but also included imports, rarities, and the kind of offbeat or obscure albums that the clerks insisted any good store had in stock. As Tower Records did for so many young artists and bohemians, The Beat attracted rock ‘n’ rollers, harnessing their knowledge and passion for music. It was the kind of store where the knowledgeable clerks could give you informed suggestions for music you might like, and provide interesting little factoids about records you purchase. It also changed customers’ lives. When it lost its lease and took its business online in 2013, longtime customers mourned the loss on social media. “Without your store I may not be making a living as a DJ,” one wrote. Another said, “I would have rather lost the kings.” Not everyone viewed it that way. Even though The Beat was locally owned and turned many people on to great music, many young locals maligned it for being kind of stale and mainstream.
“The Beat was one of those shitty overpriced places that would have a record you wanted but it would sit in the bin for years and years and they would never price it down,” said Patrone. “Why?”
“You’d go out on tour and people would tell you, ‘Oh, steal from this co-op. They’re fucked here,’” said Offer. “Everybody seems to have that thing about their town where they think it’s the worst. I don’t know if The Beat was that bad. I only know that we held them up as a corporate establishment. Their only crime was really just selling import 7-inches for 15 bucks or something, which seemed an important part of how they made their money. At the same time, The Beat was a place I picked up a lot of the stuff that changed my life and got some good records for three bucks. It turned me on to reggae.”
Scott Miller, too: “That is also the record store that was essential to my musical taste. The equivalent of having a Rough Trade in your cow town, they carried shit you would never have been able to get otherwise without going to SF.”
The Yah Mos had it in for them.
“So we started doing this kind of thing were we would walk in there and walk out with some records under our arm,” said Offer. “It was also that kind of shoplifting where you act like you know what you’re doing and just saunter out with records under your arm. No one questions you. It became the kind with his hand in the cookie jar. I could never get enough from there. So what I did was, on October 30th, I went to The Beat, got together a huge stack of everything I wanted, and put it toward the back by the Z section or something.” He stacked lots of imports and expensive new records by Stereolab, Sonic Youth, and Blur. He had them all ready to go so he could get in and out of there as quickly as possible. “I went back the next day, on Halloween, wearing, from what I recall, as much full clown gear as I could put on: nose, full face mask, a wig, some sort of outfit—I don’t remember exactly what closed I picked out. I wanted to be in disguise. The stack was right where I left it.”
Wearing a costume that attracts attention seems ineffective, but even though it was Halloween, he wasn’t trying to blend in. He was trying to conceal his identity. He planned on being in the store so briefly that it wouldn’t matter if he aroused suspicion. Unbeknownst to Offer, one customer told a store clerk, “Watch that clown.”
“I couldn’t have been in there longer than two minutes,” Offer said. “Tristan’s girlfriend was parked in a car in the alley behind The Beat, waiting for me. I walked into The Beat. Grabbed the records I’d stashed. I raced out the back door, which sets off the emergency alarm. I start running toward the alley. There is our friend Greg Gorman, who was in the getaway car with Jenny. He’s walking toward me with a look on his face that I’d never seen before or since. I run right past him, because the guy from The Beat is now outside chasing me yelling, ‘Come back here motherfucker!’ So I’m running down the alley and I don’t see a getaway. There’s no getaway car. It’s gone. That was the reason for the look on Gorman’s face: He was coming to tell me to abort the mission. Someone had told them they couldn’t park there, so they had to move and decided to call it off. So I’m running down the alley in a full clown suit, with this huge stack of records and CDs in my arms. The CDs are flying off first. They’re in an awkward stack. I hadn’t planned to run more than half a block. Now I’m running down the street. Running, running, running away from his guy. The Beat clerk is probably 20 years older than I am. I finally ditch him after a few blocks. I’m over on I and 17th, and just started to slow down, out of breath but feeling safe. Out of nowhere a car pulls up and a guy jumps out. It was the editor of the Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento’s alt-weekly. He’d been in The Beat shopping, warned a clerk, saw it happen, and decided to stop me. So he got in his car and started chasing me. He’s the one who caught me. I could’ve fought him, but I’m not much of a fighter, and I was pretty out of breath at that point. And he had some other guy with him.”
The editor was the customer who told a clerk “Watch that clown.” When Offer bolted, the editor bolted too and raced down the street to try to cut Offer off.
“He was being a vigilante of justice,” said Patrone, who loved this story. “Then a bunch of other reporters showed up and were praising that guy for being a model citizen for taking down this horrible punk rocker. Like that was noble. Hey, fuck you guys. What have you guys ever done?”
“They apprehended me and walked me back to the store where they took all the records back. I want to say it was $500 or $800 worth of records. Keep in mind, they were high-ticket items, and I was trying to get the biggest stack I could get. I was trying to get records for friends and stuff. I was getting it for everyone. I was doing it for the cause! Not for resale. This is before we started stealing to resell albums. That started to happen because we had everything we could possibly want to listen to. Then it was like, ‘Well, let’s start selling them, too.’ This was back when we had nothing. We just wanted the fucking records. The staff photocopied my ID and let me go, and that was it. Told me to never come back. I got really fucking lucky.”
Luck in this case involves what we now call white privilege. As a white guy, I’ve enjoyed the benefits of it myself.
“Now the conversation would center around white privilege. It was what it was and they let me go. I lived at this punk house where everyone’s waiting for me to come home, and at that point, the getaway car has returned without me, and everyone’s wondering what happened? I had to come home, a sad clown, busted, with no records. A failure. Of course, the alt-weekly wrote about it as this funny thing that happened, or whatever. Then, not more than two weeks later, our friend Margo and I decide to hitchhike to Gilman Street to see a show our friend was playing. We didn’t have to wait too long hitchhiking that day. We only waited an hour, hour and a half until a Jaguar picked us up. Which is pretty cool. You rarely get picked up by people in cars that nice. So we’re riding in this Jaguar, talking with the driver. He’s like, ‘Oh, Gilman Street, I know it. I can take you right to the club. I’m going to Slim’s to see Everything But the Girl.’ I was like, ‘Oh, Everything But the Girl. I know some of their tunes. I like them. They have some good stuff.’ So we start going back and forth, talking about different bands and records: Gang of Four, Tom Tom Club. The guy has really good taste in music. So we start talking about what we do. It’s the owner of The Beat! [Robert Fauble.] Dead serious. He’s a totally cool guy. His brother was the one who chased me. I recognized him but not the owner, because he was never in the store. He drops us off at Gilman Street. He loves me, offers me a job. Because we really connected talking about music and stuff. Back then, in 1995, you didn’t talk to people about Gang of Four. Now everyone’s tired of talking about Gang of Four. Back then, that really connected you to people. Besides the thievery, I would’ve been a good employee. It was a good call to offer me that job.” Gang of Four was a really calling card for someone with depth and a sense of taste. Fauble became a human being on that car ride, not just a symbol of corporate oppression. “I definitely had respect for him after that. We really connected.”
Stealing food and records was one thing. Keeping clean was a more difficult challenge and one that defeated him. “As far as for where I cleaned up,” Offer said, “I just didn’t really. I smelled pretty bad, I guess.” In a pinch, he could wash the important parts in the bathroom sink for what is politely called a bird bath. “But I guess I always thought that was cool after I saw Madonna do it in Desperately Seeking Susan.”
While Offer and Williams used their free time to focus on music, others made music around traditional jobs. Only 19 years old and fresh out of high school, Tozer worked at a dry cleaning place instead of going to college, and later got a job in West Sacramento pricing and shipping magazines for Tower Records. “I had half of the Tiki Men, half The Deftones, and half the Bananas as co-workers!” he said. “The Tower mag warehouse was kind of like the internet of its time. Every magazine and zine, from square titles to the weirdest niche porn, passed through there. You spent half your day thumbing through it all.” It was a great job for a busy young guitarist.
Things ramped up quickly. People dug The Yah Mos. The band played around California and at the legendary all-ages punk venue named Gilman Street, in Berkeley—the place Green Day made their name. “Yah Mos were actually pretty hip among that smallish U.S. scene,” said Miller. The band added a new drummer named Mike Guis, who they knew from Rancho. He’d played in the Pope Smashers, which were like Sacramento’s version of The Fall. But a band is a chain that’s only as strong as its weakest link.
Everyone loved Guis, but he was flakey. He was consistently an hour to an hour and a half late for every practice. “He was a real tripper, man,” Carroll said. “He was a real freak. He was just one of God’s creatures.”
Pronounced ‘Juice,’ and possibly short for Guisseppe, Guis was far from a hippie, but he constantly referenced the universe and attributed things to the cosmos in a sweet, endearing way that wasn’t common among the punks and rock ‘n’ rollers. “You’d kind of know what he was saying—he was on this different plane—so you kind of didn’t know what he was saying,” said Williams. “But he was so sincere and enthusiastic about this feeling that he wanted to capture.”
“He was just a pure dude,” Patrone said. People called him an outlaw. He did his own thing. When Guis arrived late to practice, Patrone could imagine him saying something like, “What, man? The universe made me late!” Or “I was listening to The Fall!” Guis came to Patrone’s house once when the bassist was feeling down. Patrone used to go through dark periods, feeling like everything was terrible and that he was a bad person. “Mike came to my place once and said, ‘Jason. You’re a beautiful soul. I see that. The universe sees that, too. It’s gonna be okay.’ It was just the right thing to say. I was like, Okay!’” And in his twinkling, galactic hug kind of way, he was right. Just hearing that made Patrone feel better.
Guis was a relatively calm person, positive and unruffled, patient and loving—he tried to see the best in people and situations—but he listened to loud music, like the hardcore band Void or Japanese noise band Melt Banana. “Music was cathartic for him,” said Patrone. “It helped him find his calm. He never talked shit. He liked nearly every kind of music. He found some beauty in any band you could think of. He had no enemies. He was above reproach.” Even on the dingiest sets, he was also one of the best drummers people had ever seen. “He hit it so hard and did these incredible fills. He’d come up with these patterns that made you go, ‘Where the fuck did you get that?’ Out there, man. Space. He definitely was in touch with some forces that we weren’t.”
“He was a fucking genius,” said James Willams, “really, really good at what he did. You could get away with being late when you’re that good.” It wasn’t like they had anything else to do.
Despite being in the band with him for years, Williams never got to know Guis well. But his authenticity and uniqueness were as obvious as his musical abilities. “One of the things I remember about Mike, is that he really valued things sounding tribal,” said Williams. “‘Tribal’ was his word. To me that’s so perfectly Mike.” Tribal seemed to be something musical, but it was also his spirit. “Sincerity was very important to him. In part, maybe tribal was something both wild and 100% sincere.” His band the Pope Smashers captured that tribal aesthetic best, better than the Yah Mos records. Because of his sincerity, Guis hated sarcasm. “Which is funny that he’d end up with us,” said Williams, “since Tristan, Nic, and I are nothing if not sarcastic and irreverent.”
Sarcasm seems an odd thing to despise, but it ran counter to his insistence on being genuine and honest to other people and creating that tribal kind of bond. It’s not like he was humorless. “I went to the record store with him and as he passed the Uriah Heep section he goes, ‘Uh, diarrhea heap,’” said Patrone. “I wondered what was wrong with sarcasm. It seemed so weird a thing to hate. Eventually I realized sarcasm was like the worst thing in the world.”
None of The Yah Mos had much, if not any of, their own equipment. “It was crazy,” said Patrone admiringly. “Tristan is this brilliant guitarist who didn’t own his own equipment. I was like, ‘Wow. This is how it’s supposed to be!’” The first time the Santa Cruz band The Four Eyes played Sacramento—where they eventually relocated—at The Loft in 1995, Tozer borrowed Joel Goulet’s guitar and broke it. “That was an opening of a whole new world to us,” Goulet remembered. “The scene was so inviting and so expressive.”
Tozer may have owned a Peavey amp, but he didn’t need much. “Tristan always seemed like he came out of a box assembled—born able to play anything he wanted,” said Williams. “Tristan was always so much better than us that I could never tell if he was getting better.”
On The Yah Mos’ six-month national tour in 1994, Williams had to borrow a bass amp from someone in Sac. It broke right before they left on tour. “Every night I asked another band on the bill if I could borrow their amp. Every night. I don’t consider myself very punk, but I think that qualifies me.”
Sometimes Guis would play Ed Carroll’s drums at shows or practice and hit them so hard he’d break the sticks, then he’d put the broken pieces back in Carroll’s bag. Carroll would pull them out to play and be like, “What the hell?” Guis wasn’t trying to be a jerk or play a joke. He was broke. He didn’t want to deprive Carroll of his sticks. But he couldn’t afford to replace them either, so he returned the broken sticks to their owner. “If he had the money he would’ve bought you a hundred fucking drum sets,” said Patrone. “He never wronged people. Even when he did it was funny.”
Patrone remembered a Guis encounter in Davis. “I’d been kicked out of my place by this roommate, and the roommate said he put a curse on me. I was so down on myself that I got deathly ill and I believed it. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s right. I am a terrible person.’ I didn’t eat for three days. I was on campus one day, commuting from Sac back to Davis finishing school. So there at the campus bus stop by the student union is Mike Guis. He didn’t go to Davis. I say, ‘Hey Mike, what are you doing here?’ He was on a little walkabout in Davis. He goes, ‘You haven’t eaten?’ He takes me to get soup at this Mexican restaurant. ‘I’m gonna get you fed.’ He said, ‘It’s going to be okay. You’re gonna hold it down.’ And I did. He took care of me somehow. Then he was all, ‘We’re going to go home and listen to some Sonic Youth and some Voivod, have some water.’ He showed up to guru me through this shit. He was that guy.”
He was also chronically late to practice. Even when his cosmic way complicated peoples’ lives, it could produce something beautiful, in this case, an entire band.
“So the three of us would get there,” Tozer said, “hang out, set up the equipment, set up his drums, wait. Then Mike would come rolling in and practice.” It kept happening, so they started playing instrumentals to pass the time.
“The Yah Mos bass player also played drums,” said Tozer, “mostly at home in his grandma’s garage. James developed his own fun, frenetic style. Suddenly we just started going, ‘Oh, I have this instrumental idea’ And instead of singing, Nic’s like, ‘I’ll mess around with the bass.’ He’d always played rhythm guitar a little bit.” Like many bands at practice, it was a lot of: “Oh hey, let’s try this,” and, “Sure, that’s fun.” Then the drums would kick in, and they quickly developed full songs. “I had always had chunks of melody in my mind,” said Tozer. “So I’d come up with a little catch phrase on guitar, and that’s totally what the band’s origin was.” Then Guis would finally show up and they’d practice Yah Mos songs until the next time.
Offer still loves Tozer’s guitar-playing, and back then, it was clear he was gifted. “Tristan is the kind of guy where, if he’s excited and in a good mood, he can write one good part after another,” said Offer. “He would have something he cooked up at home, and we would work around it in practice, but in general, Tristan would be like, ‘Oh, what about this?’ and we would build stuff around him.”
“Yah Mos songwriting was just jamming parts together,” Tozer said. “Everyone would throw in their bits. I was always good at coming up with the hook. I didn’t really write lyrics at the time, but I’d say ‘Just repeat “fuck that” three times and that’ll be the chorus!’ With Boulevard Park Trio, I started to think more about songwriting because I was coming up with these instrumentals.”
It wasn’t a conscious move to play drastically different music than The Yah Mos’ primitive punk. Instrumentals reflected the band’s wide-ranging tastes and Tozer’s origins. “It was fun for me,” he said. “I came up with the melodies and kind of the arrangements. There wasn’t a lot of thought put into them. We liked to have a melody, but we kind of just bashed through them. Not the most complex music but, you know, it was all coming from the same kind of place: oldies and punk. I remember being into this DC punk band Slant 6, who were around at the time. Their guitarist-singer Christina Billotte was a really big influence on me. She had a single note style of playing and neat arrangements. I think that comes through on, say, ‘Another Crush,’ where there’s that kind of harmonized duh duh duh duh, and it sounds a little off. That’s very much a Slant 6 thing.”
“First time I saw Tristan,” Miller told me, “he was playing in Yah Mos, and you could tell he knew about all kinds of music, and it was coming out via this hardcore lens.”
The different vibe was also appealing. “Tristan wanted a fun band to fuck around with,” said friend and bassist Jason Patrone. “The Yah Mos were serious. They weren’t preaching veganism or anything like that. But they challenged people with their ideas. They had strong beliefs. Boulevard Park Trio was their fun band.”
In any band, tensions build. As a side-project, those tensions dissipate. There was no pressure to be anything. Where Offer became a bit too concerned with being a certain kind of punk, The Boulevard Park Trio gave him the freedom to be something—anything—else, especially his oldies-loving self. “And if we couldn’t come up with anymore songs,” said Williams, “so what?”
Offer also enjoyed the trio because, in Yah Mos, he was just a singer and missed playing an instrument. Williams enjoyed switching around. “I think someone gave James a drum set,” said Offer. Yes, Offer did. Or his mom.
“This is where the oldies come into play again,” said Williams. “Nic bought a drum set. I don’t know how I wrangled the drums—maybe his mom wouldn’t let him play it or something. I kind of, sort of had a sense of how to play the drums. I’d jump on our Mike’s kit after Yah Mos practice or whatever. So when I was 16, I talked Nic into letting me take the drum set home. I just ended up bashing on the drums. I’d turn up the oldies station as loud as I could and just play along for hours—initially in my bedroom, then in the garage. I’m sure my grandma wanted to kill me. That’s how I learned. I had all these little stupid oldies fills down pretty well.”
“We really liked that thing certain drummers have,” Offer said. “They don’t have to be very good. It’s a feel. James just had that feel. To me, with a drummer like that, you just like the drum fills. If he drives it and you like his drum fills, great.” Even though Williams’s drumming could be sloppy, he had great fills and a sophisticated rhythmic sensibility that carried the songs, often playing just behind the beat the way a jazz drummer would, and creating a palpable tension. “We always liked that kind of fuck-it-and-go drumming in old music,” said Offer. “It made sense that he’d been playing bass next to Tristan for so long in Yah Mos. His baselines accented Tristan’s melodies. In Boulevard Park, his fills had a way of complimenting Tristan’s melodies. He was the most into oldies at that point, very into Dusty Springfield and Sandy Shaw.” The three-piece format also gave the band a powerful dynamic. “I like trios because a trio is a tripod. All three elements are totally important. They’re all holding it up. You can make a lesser case for a four-piece band, but in a trio, all members have to be propelling it.”
If Williams was playing behind the beat in a kind of propulsive, jazzy way, it wasn’t on purpose. “Maybe I’m just kind of slow.” He snickered. “I don’t say this in any negative way, but you’ve put more thought into my drumming than I ever have. I don’t mean that to be insulting. I just never thought about it that closely.” He wasn’t sure how to describe his style, beyond having that kind of oldies groove. “It was kind of garage-y, I guess. I’d say trashy, but it wasn’t bad or anything. It was competent enough. If I had an opportunity, I would do way too long of fills just to see how it went.”
Thanks to Guis’ tardiness, they quickly worked up three or four original songs and a cover of the Wild Wild World of Animals TV show outro music. It wasn’t even meant to be a band. “It just happened,” said Tozer. “It was nothing more than: ‘Oh, now we have this thing.’”
Tozer remembers a more gradual origin: a few practices generating a few songs. Offer remembered it happening the first time Guis was late. “When the soda is hitting Tristan right, he can crank ’em out,” said Offer. “‘What about this? What about this?’ It was kinda manic.” Offer thinks they wrote “Another Crush” that first day, and that “Lost Continent” was the first song they finished. BPT performed their first show that night. “We’re like, ‘There’s a show tonight,’ because shows used to be on Sundays at that point. They’d start at like six or seven. We’re like, ‘Let’s see if we can play on the show tonight!’ So we asked Scott, or maybe it was Craig [Usher] running the shows at that point. After Mike showed [for practice] and we were finishing Yah Mos practice, we probably played the songs for Mike and were like ‘Check this out,’ and asked them about the show. I don’t remember who we opened for, but Scott Miller watched and he was like, 'You guys wanna make a record?' The first show. That was it.” That’s how important places like The Loft are to young musicians: no rent, low overhead, friends, sharing ideas, a place to practice, write, perform, record, and evolve musically, and find collaborators like Scott Miller. “We started the band that day and had a place to play that night. If Mike hadn’t been late, and we didn’t play that night, I might not be talking to you right now. It’s that simple.”
If Offer’s memory is correct, they made magic as quickly as they bottled it. “That’s definitely possible!” Miller told me. Though Tozer’s version was a bit closer to his recollection, and that he seems to have known about the band a little while before seeing them play, he knows their formation was quick and defers to the band. “I would trust his memory more than mine.”
The name Boulevard Park Trio came easily. “There was this neat sign near The Loft, and we thought ‘Oh, we’ll be The Boulevard Park Trio,’” Tozer said. “Boulevard Park Trio had a nice ring to it.”
“I bet you we named it that day,” said Offer. “We named it that because it’s almost like, we’re the Rancho Cordova kids and now we’re downtown. And Boulevard Park was kind of this archaic thing. No one called it that. This funny sign was there, harkening back to this old world that was weird and mysterious. It’s like, They think this is Boulevard Park? The idea to be a trio of guys dedicated to the Boulevard Park was just funny to us.”
For as punk as The Yah Mos’ music was, oldies and Soul played a huge part in their musical lives, because that music, like that Boulevard Park sign, also harkened back to an era that twinkled with romance and mystery. For instance, The Yah Mos’ debut 7-inch has jazz trumpeter Chet Baker on the cover, along with a drawing of a very vintage style drum. “It was the end of the 80s,” said Offer, “at that point where all of that [midcentury stuff] was turning into a long time ago, something that was missing. We were never revivalists. Some of us maybe more than others. But we liked the mystery of that time, that it was something different.” When Williams and Offer stayed in The Dead Lady’s house, they kept the Cruisin’ 1470 local oldies station on all the time. “We liked when things were slightly messed up,” said Offer. “We liked recordings that were a little too hot. We liked it when the drummer sounded like he was losin’ it! We liked that aspect of music. It felt right when we did it. We were having a blast. It was no big deal. It’s like, ‘Hey, yeah, we’re gonna make a record? Cool, let’s go!’”
Mrs. Tozer’s Jim Hall records continued to influence Tristan. He read that Hall sometimes practiced by taping off certain strings, so we would only have four working strings, and this would force Hall to work around certain limitations. “I didn’t go that far, but when I practiced, I did try to work in unusual ways, and I put limitations on myself to see if I could get out of them—creating little puzzles.”
It makes sense. Many people described Tozer as Sacramento’s most underrated and innovative guitarist. He laughed at that idea, humbly attributing whatever unique sound he had to his own musical limitations.
“I can’t sing. I can do a background part, if I practice, but I have a reedy voice. I can yell. I would love to sing, but I just can’t sing. I try to sing through the guitar. I think I’ve gotten to a point where I can hear something and make it come out of my fingers at the same time, when I’m humming. You can do a melody or whatever it is, and that’s maybe what makes my guitar playing a little different sometimes. I’m really a frustrated singer.”
He was always a quick study on guitar. “It took me like two weeks and I basically had everything I needed to know [about instrumental rock]. That was a good way to do it. It was disciplined. It was like learning to type or something. You know, you have to play these patterns over and over, and you’re beating it into yourself. I think surf music and rock instrumentals made that fun. And I liked it because it was a little more dexterous and adventurous and exciting.”
Surf was also having a moment.
At the time Boulevard Park formed in 1993, Scott Miller and Micah Kennedy and Pete Husing were searching for that bassist to fill out their surf band.
“I think they were playing even a little before the Tiki Men,” Miller remembered, “though it was roughly the same time. I ran in to them at a cafe when we were just getting the Tiki Men off the ground—still a trio with no bass—and they told me they had a new surf-ish band too, which got me even more excited for Tiki Men, just feeling like there was a funny punks-play-surf thing happening. It’s very Sac. Plus I knew they would be good because Tristan was good and Yah Mos put on a super fun show.”
“Meeting and seeing the Tiki Men,” said Tozer, “who were just a few years older than me, and at that age when an age gap seems much more pronounced, it was like, Whoa, these are the coolest people I’ve ever met. They were all into surf, but they were all punk rockers to a degree, too. Pete Husing, the rhythm guitarist, made me a tape of The Wipers’ Land of the Lost and other stuff. That was the first time I’d heard it. They were all cool guys who became like the awesome big brothers.”
The Tiki Men were an influence. Sacramento was a big influence. The Loft and Scott Miller were influences. “The first time I talked to Scott I ran into him on a street corner. I didn’t really know him, and we talked for like three hours about Jackie Wilson or something. Then he came over to a Yah Mos practice that night and left me a Jackie Wilson record. That was very much in the air. Scott was the same as me. He liked Jesus & The Mary chain in high school and those types of things. Him opening up to Soul and kind of being punk—I think he would say the same thing about how he felt as a punk. He probably hates Fugazi and bands like that. But he might identify with another area of punk but feel pretty different than those punks. In Sac, where Scott and I have different views on music, we could both like Jackie Wilson and meet there. You know?”
The era was another influence. The ’90s garage revival was going on at the time. Bay Area bands like The Mummies, Supercharger, The Trashwomen, and The Phantom Surfers were recasting 60s garage and instrumental music from the Nuggets era through their punk trash compactor, fusing it with their modern sensibility and a proudly lo-fi approach.
Although Tozer was too young to get into bars and experience those garage revival bands, he loved the Mummies and Supercharger records, and he managed to see Tiki Men and the Japanese surf band Jackie and the Cedrics play. “So it was in the air,” he said. “It’s a fun music to see live. It can be rattling, with the reverb and lots of ride symbols hit hard. We just did it for a little while.”
The Bay was a major center of the ’90s surf and garage revival, but as the Sacramento News & Review wrote, early ’60s Sacramento was “an inland hotbed of surf-rock culture”. “Sacramento was so surf crazy [in the early ’60s] that it was the first place, outside of their hometown of Los Angeles, where the Beach Boys became a sensation. That Sacramento was the first place the Beach Boys hit it big outside L.A. has been cited in a number of band stories and biographies.” Surf music influenced many young Sacramento musicians in the early 1960s, before the British Invasion did. Sac’s greatest psychedelic garage band, Public Nuisance, started in 1964 as a surf band called The Jaguars. Tom Phillips, guitarist for the Encina High School surf band The Contenders watched The Jaguars tear through an opening set at a 1964 teen dance in Elk Grove. “They had hair down to their waists,” Phillips told Sacramento News & Review. “David [Houston] would go out and destroy his guitar onstage. This was before the Who.” He called them radicals.
People still call America a melting pot, but California truly is. And as a center of commerce, politics, and agriculture in the state’s geographical center, Sac is especially.
“Boulevard Park Trio is not golden oldies per se, but that’s where our influences outside if punk really manifested.”
Williams isn’t sure how much broader their tastes really were, but they got off on thinking of their tastes that way. Punks playing ’60s rock instrumentals was also kind of funny. Tozer said, “We were always amused by it.” The very act of liking pop and oldies qualified as a punk statement. The Yah Mos also liked the way it challenged punk audiences’ ideas about what punk was, and what acceptable music could be. For The Yah Mos, instrumental and oldies music was also a way to thumb their noses at punk convention. That’s the thing: They were still deeply in their punk music mode and that community, playing for those crowds. So as an instro band, they weren’t just having fun exploring the instrumental form and expressing their love of ’60s music. They were challenging peoples’ ideas.
The Yah Mos thought that the emo/hardcore scene had too many rules. “A lot of us were vegetarian back then,” said Offer. “We were PC and stuff. Some of that was a little stale, a little norm-y, no one did drugs. Well, James and I liked acid. We just didn’t fit exactly in it. We fit better in The Loft because it was just like whatever. But out in the real world outside of Sacramento, things were different. The world felt a little more in place, definitely as punks. Because The Yah Mos were really pretty punk. As punks we didn’t like that. That’s the same attitude that led me to my [later] bands chk chk chk and Out Hud, was ‘We were punk but we also like this other kind of music. I remember with The Yah Mos we did two shows where we played all ’60s Soul covers. I remember that specifically. I’d been up all night on acid and hadn’t slept, we’re playing this crazy show at The Loft, and in the middle of the show Tristan yells, ‘A month from now we’re playing a show of all ’60 soul covers!’ And this is literally the first I’ve heard of it. That’s how it was. It was just free like that. So a month later, The Yah Mos played this full set of ’60s Soul, and that experience was a big part of me learning to play music differently. There’s a hundred different things leading to chk chk chk and Out Hud, but there’s a line that can be drawn from playing totally different styles of music as a punk and thinking of it as a punk thing to do. That’s how we were. We always felt that The Yah Mos were punker than all the other punk bands because of our philosophy.”
(CONTINUED IN PART 2….)