The Boulevard Park Trio: Part Two
The longest music story in the world continues whether you want it to or not.
(CONTINUED FROM PART 1)
The Yah Mos got booked to headline a three-day punk festival in Shasta, California in 1995 or ’96. They were flattered but also bummed: Three days of punk? During three days of any one musical style, every band starts to blend together. How do you close three days of punk? The Yah Mos decided to open their set with a straight up rendition of James Brown’s “Sex Machine.” Not a sped up rendition. Not distorted. The way Brown originally played it. The place went nuts. “Maybe I would cringe if I saw a recording of it,” said Offer, “but as I recall, it was badass.” The band sometimes broke into James Brown covers on a lark in practice. And they covered Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” at Yah Mos shows in Chicago and Sacramento. It was a quick palate cleanser before they tore through their punk set, and that funky song made the punk tunes sound just a bit better than they would have without the soulful contrast. “It was also kind of a show off thing,” said Offer, “like a fuck you to these punks who want everything to be 1-2-3-4. Then we played our punk set. Tristan can pull off that style of guitar and sound great. He’s a funky player. Funkiness is underrated in rock. Prince is one of the greatest rock guitarists ever.”
Obviously, people define punk as so many ridiculous things, particularly as it being antagonistic, or as a strict style of dress and a strict musical style. Despite all these stiflingly formulaic definitions, ultimately, being punk isn’t about chord progressions or look. It’s about being free. Not just the freedom to be yourself, but the freedom to explore who you could be, to have permission to evolve and expand beyond what you already are. So there’s something really neat about a supposed punk band challenging the restrained, confined thinking of a punk audience by playing something that they may think they’re not supposed to like. The Meat Puppets did that. During their first two years, they played fast, loud, feral music rooted in punk. They were young and frenetic and taking acid, so they channeled that into their music. But they quickly expanded beyond that narrow punk aesthetic, because they liked country and pop music, and they didn’t like to be contained. So they challenged their punk audiences to access new parts of their narrow-minded brains by covering the very unpunk Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” Grateful Dead’s “I Know You Rider,” Neil Young’s “When You Dance I Can Really Love,” Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride,” CCR’s “Green River,” even Slim Whitman’s “Una Paloma Blanca.” What does punk mean? It’s this, they were saying. Crowds did not like it.
“That’s what the first chk chk chk tours were like,” Offer said. “I remember playing at a punk house where there were seven people in there, and they all walked out. They were all dressed like exploited punks. It’s like, you don’t see that you put on a uniform and we’re giving you something that’s totally different? We’re giving you real punk. You’re holding up mall punk as an ideal, bro. But I love that Meat Puppets approach and love all sorts of music where they’re saying ‘What we’re doing is kind of punk.’ I like that punk is held up as an ideal of something to strive for. It’s shorthand for rule-breaking at this point. I think having that attitude in any style of music is good. I love irreverence.”
“It was ridiculous,” remembers Williams. “James Brown did not go over as well as ‘Let’s Go Crazy.’” As punks, they savored that reaction. It reinforced their outsider-ness.
“As The Yah Mos, we didn’t really fit with the hardcore scene,” said Offer. “We viewed ourselves as kind of different than the hardcore scene. We liked a lot of things about it, but we also viewed it as sterile and straight. There was a lot of bands and attitudes we didn’t like. We didn’t fit in with the typical garage rock scene, either. We liked lots of garage records, but because we were PC hardcore or whatever, we didn’t do 21 and over shows. We probably could’ve made a big impression out there as a band if we had stayed in that scene, because all the people who liked that kind of music were hanging out at 21 and over places. We were too punk to play there.”
They played full instrumental sets at two Yah Mos shows: Once in Atlanta in 1994 on their national tour, once in either Corvallis or Eugene, Oregon in 1994 or ’95, on tour with Soriano’s band Los Huevos. 1994 was their national tour. They got all set up at the Atlanta venue. Right before The Yah Mos’ went on, Mike Guis wandered off to explore the city—Guis just being himself—so the three remaining guys explained how they also had this surf band whose instrumentals they could play. The venue said sure, whatever. The emo/hardcore crowd did not enjoy it. “They were like, ‘Okay, why are you doing this?’” Williams vaguely remembered, and they waited for the set to end. The Oregon show drew more of a garage than hardcore crowd, which the band treated as an opportunity to play garage-y music because they thought they’d like it.
“Yah Mos would never play for more than 20 minutes,” Offer said, “so when you switch your sound completely, you’re not really wasting anybody’s time by playing 12 minutes of surf music. Especially since it’s good. Playing a 12-minute set of instrumentals was another way of standing out at a show consisting of five emo/hardcore bands. Everyone else sounds like Minor Threat, and you sound like the 60s. I think we enjoyed our outsider-ness with that. We also really enjoyed that those emo/hardcore shows bands didn’t get surf. They thought that was stupid. So we had a little bit of a contrarian streak, where we’d be like, ‘Hey check it out, we’re gonna play these surf songs now.’ Then when we played them, we played them well. It was a little bit of us thumbing our noses at these emo/hardcore crowds, and it was a little swagger. Because it was good, you know?”
Boulevard Park probably did not play more than ten shows. No one filmed any of them.
“Saw Boulevard Park Trio play a couple of times and loved them,” Trouble Makers singer Tim Foster said. “I don’t remember much about them live other than they were sloppy punks and I dug it.”
Dave Smith said, “They didn’t play often enough.”
“They were fucking amazing,” said Patrone. “I wouldn’t even call them a surf band. Theirs was a weirder, dark studio kind of music.”
“I saw them a lot when they played,” said Ed Carroll. “I remember it being very seat of the pants, very twangy. It was just another Sacto band that was like, ‘Here’s what we got.’ It was something I didn’t think I’d be talking about many years later to anybody that wasn’t there at the time. I don’t think even people that were there talked about them.”
The Trio played The Loft with the Tiki Men and Los Huevos in February 1994.
They played a party at a friend’s, Keri Bothello’s, small upstairs apartment in Southside Park.
They opened for The Softies at The Loft, when that twee two-piece were practicing in Sac and decided to play a show. Scott Miller made the flyer.
“We played at a Sac bar called The Press Club,” said Tozer, “a crappy bar with plastic glasses and fights. Nic didn’t want to play bars at all. He did that reluctantly. He wanted to do all-ages only. Other than that, we played at The Loft. Maybe we played a party.” He didn’t remember. He remembered listeners’ enthusiasm. “We bent ears. No one was passive about it. They’d hear us and go, ‘Oh, this is great! You should play this show.’ People would yell, dance around, sway to the slow songs. That made us feel good.”
Even years later they received the same reception. “The Yah Mos went on a two-month tour in 2004 of the U.S.,” said Tozer. “We had these Boulevard Park Trio songs, so if a band dropped off the bill, we would just play as a trio, unannounced, before The Yah Mos played. That was a lot of fun. I think the crowds liked it, too. They’d be like, Oh, what’s this? They had no idea that we could do that. We’d come out with these thoughtful instrumentals, then we’d go, ‘Thanks!’ The drummer would come up, and we’d just go off. Kick things over and stuff. We’d set up and go ‘Okay, we’re gonna do these songs.’ Kind of talk to the crowd and play through it. They’d all sway and stare at us. Then we’d come out with the main event.”
They may have only played one show outside of Sac back in the day. It was with The Tiki Men, near the town of Phillipsville, in Humboldt County.
“It was a very strange show,” said Tozer. “Nic couldn’t make it. Maybe he was hitchhiking that summer, or riding the trains. So we got Mike Cinciripino, aka Mike R Mike, the singer-guitarist of the group The Bananas, to play bass. The people at the college radio station up in Humboldt invited us to lunch at their house, which was in the middle of nowhere among these gigantic trees. They were listening to Destroy All Monsters. They were smoking marijuana. I wasn’t into smoking at the time, but I smoked some. Some of us were freaked out. The music was scary. Then we played some really ornate, late-50s, early-60s style, redwood room bar, in or near Phillipsville, to nobody.” It was one of those shows where bands drive for hours to play for no one, where there was more action before and after the performance. “After we finished playing, we were standing outside, and this wiry, cowboy-looking guy in jeans and a jean jacket sidled up to us out of the darkness and says, ‘You boys like to burn?’ So we looked at him like, Yeah. He pulls out this joint and says, ‘This is P-Ville weed,’ and he lit it up and passed it around. For the second time of the day I was completely shattered. Then he blended into the night.”
When Miller finally asked them to put out a 45, all the members agreed. Of course they knew Secret Center Records, and knew Scott from his innumerable bands. “It was really exciting that he took such interest in what they were doing,” said Tozer. “He wasn’t a stranger, but I was just getting to know him. We eventually worked together at the Tower Records warehouse, and lived together with other people at this punk house situation called the U Street Gentleman’s Club. At the time I was flattered, like ‘Oh, the guy from the Tiki Men wants to put out a record?’ That was further confirmation of how people felt: that although we’d just played a handful of shows, someone was willing to put their energy behind us.”
They knew they were a surfy band, but they didn’t think of themselves as a surf band like The Phantom Surfers or Jackie and the Cedrics were a surf band. “We didn’t have a surf appearance or a heavy reverence for the history of the music,” Tozer said. “We just had these ditties that came spilling out in that form.” Miller made sure their record didn’t have the fonts or beach motifs of a surf band either. Maybe wearing all those silky Hawaiian shirts in the Tiki Men made him cautious about aesthetics.
Boulevard Park Trio might have recorded at The Loft with Chris Woodhouse, had the band and the Tiki Men not been friends. Interestingly, it was Woodhouse who’d inspired the Tiki Men’s lead guitarist Micah Kenney to learn to record bands on his four-track, which is why he started recording bands at home, starting with his own. In 1995, Kennedy recorded the Lil Bunnies’ first 7’’, called Lil Bunnies, at The Loft on his 4-track. That record, as Midtown Monthly wrote, “ended up at #1 on Rolling Stone’s punk charts for a week.” In 1994, Scott Miller arranged the BPT session with Kennedy. “I have a memory of that day,” said Miller, “knowing they were recording and really hoping it captured the band. I think cuz they were fairly blasé about the band I had no idea how much they really cared about it.”
The Tiki Men originally practiced in Miller’s parents’ basement, but Kennedy eventually moved into one of three, second-floor lofts inside the converted Sing Hing Bean Sprout Factory. Two other dudes lived there, too, and the three shared a kitchen. The downstairs area where the bean sprouts once grew was subdivided into larger rooms. Tenants worked on their cars in one of those downstairs rooms. Kennedy had a little photo developing station in another. The Tiki Men practiced in one of the bigger, cement-lined rooms in back. The place had singular acoustics. With no windows, sounds bounced off the exposed concrete walls, amplifying the distorted, reverb-laden guitars, and helping give it a lush, overdriven texture that equipment alone could not. Tiki Men recorded their two first 7-inch records there: Cattleprod, and my favorite, Sneak-A-Drink With the Tiki Men. You hear this special aural quality on their songs “Tiki Torcher,” “Black Cat,” and “Cattle Prod.” They’re highwater marks of the surf genre. The Bean Sprout’s unique acoustics are part of their magic.
“It was a chocolate meets peanut butter moment,” Tozer called it.
BPT recorded at the Bean Sprout in a single April afternoon. “I’d hung out there once or twice,” said Tozer. “We’d listen to records and the sounds would ping around. If I recall, I borrowed a friend’s amp to record—one of those really modern, awful, ’90s Fender reverb amps that was all solid state. The purists would cringe!” In the Bean Sprout’s dense, echoey room, with Kennedy recording, Tozer’s cheap borrowed Fender amp sounded perfect. “He had a four-track cassette deck but somehow recorded it in this very hot way that added incredible depth,” said Tozer. “I’m not sure how. Just the way he placed whatever mics he used and mixed. He made all the right things jump out.”
The magic Bean Sprout fidelity you hear on the first two Tiki Men records is all over Civic Pride and “Another Crush.” Micah died in 2009, so you can only speculate about his technique.
“I think the room played a part,” Tozer said, “but even later when Micah would record something on his own, on a four-track in a bedroom somewhere, it still had this overdriven, tough but pleasant sound. You know how someone can pick up a guitar and have their own tone through their fingers? He was somehow doing that with a four-track. It was really unusual.”
Soriano hung out during the session. “I believe Micah used four mics—one for each instrument and one room mic—and recorded on a four-track cassette player. Everything was done in no more than two takes. I think the whole session lasted an hour max.”
Like their band name, song titles were literal. “We named one ‘Another Crush’ because that’s what it felt like,” Tozer said, “the tingling and anticipation, and then it goes away. The song has this really simple but alluring melody that’s just a little minor. The loping pace of it just felt summery, when you’re just out and have these heightened senses. You’re in love with everything.”
“Runnin’ from the Man” very literally referenced their lives as young shoplifting punks, antagonizing other punks, and flaunting authority. They recorded a fast, darkly melodic one called “Johnny Dagger” with a raging bridge and name sounding faintly like a spy movie, a character in a 1950s gang flick, and The Germs’ song “Richie Dagger’s Crime.” They recorded a slow, mysterious one called “Tim’s Mood,” which is an antagonistic reference to a moody straight edger named Tim who they had a contentious relationship with. The band’s shared sugar dependence inspired one called “Soda Time,” where the guys yell “It’s soda time!” before Williams starts hammering the drums on a plucky, chipper, very classic surf song in the tradition of the Lively Ones and that moves from the low to the high-registers. “We were big sugar freaks,” said Offer. “There was one summer when we kept drinking Ruby Red Squirt because it was the caffeine alternative. Then we found out in the middle of summer that it had caffeine in it! We’d been drinking so much of it it was like ‘Oh fuck. That’s why we get so amped on this stuff!’”
They named one “Late Nite Skate” because there was a lot of skateboarding at night from here to there. “No one had a car,” said Tozer. “Nobody seemed to have bikes really. It was all skateboards. Nic was like, ‘This feels like skating at night,’ so we called it that. Another one we didn’t release was more of a stomp, not much of a melody. We called it ‘Kendon Walks In,’ because just when we about learned it, our friend Kendon Smith, singer-guitarist in the band Qore, walked in. And we’re like oh, Kendon walked in!” That song’s way better than he makes it sound: an overblown, catchy, driving take on what can almost be called a sci-fi soundtrack, with Tozer’s guitar soloing across the other instruments with shrieking lightning bolts of sound, and the guys howling “Wooohoo!” all over.
Offer didn’t remember “Late Nite Skate,” but he remembered the joy of naming songs. “It’s fun to title an instrumental and make it its own world,” he said. “Like ‘Lost Continent.’ It has that kind of sci-fi mystery that makes 60s songs attractive. It harkens back to that very 60s world.” Their favorite song titles suggest a slight meaning while remaining ambiguous enough that listeners can impose their own meaning on it. Any one of the members could have named any of these songs. They all shared certain idea about what was important about songs and shared the love of the 1960s aesthetics. “Tristan was good with the titles, too,” said Offer. “Tristan’s melodies and Tristan’s writing. He’s the lead in that band, but there wasn’t a lot of ego problems.”
Six days after the session, Kennedy mixed it. Four of those songs made the record. Miller may have pressed 500 copies of Civic Pride, because the hot sales of the Tiki Men’s first single left him feeling confident. “Plus I was going on tour right after this came out,” he said, “and DIY shows on tour are the greatest for selling even something like this. You could say ‘It’s The Yah Mos!’”
The band liked Kennedy’s mix. “It sounds like us and feels like us,” said Williams. “It has the right kind of flaws and low-lying vibe.”
The record sleeve wasn’t meant to be mysterious. It was just simple. “For the cover,” said Miller, “my idea was the pic of them by the Boulevard Park sign and not much beyond that.”
Ella Cross, a talented photographer who studied photography, also worked at a retail camera store, and she regularly took photos for bands like The Softies, Go Sailor, The Henchmen, and Los Huevos. Scott Miller was her boyfriend at the time. Naturally she took the cover photo, and a few from a show in Kari Bothello’s apartment.
“Ella was a big booster of ours for sure,” said Tozer. “She swiped this nice camera from the Filco Superstore or someplace and gave it to me so I could take snaps of what was going on.”
“My mom lived in BP and she knew a lot of the uber-residents,” said Miller. “It’s that kinda neighborhood, a bunch of historians uncovering semi-interesting neighborhood history, and she procured the map for the back cover that way. It was part of the joke of the name I think that somehow all three of them at this point lived in Boulevard Park. Even though it’s a ‘nice neighborhood,’ they, I’m sure, all lived in a closet or shared room of an apartment building that happened to skirt the boundaries of BP. So kind of a posh joke.” For some reason he had to do the lettering with a White-Out pen. “Like we suddenly needed the cover done,” he speculated, “this is what our available option is? I don’t know. Every Virgo fiber in my body can’t believe I allowed this to be the lettering! It looks SO jank but also somehow makes the 7” seem even more in its own world (no hip surf fonts here!). So the original cover was the full size picture with White-Out ‘font’ on some black construction paper framing the pic. But we were like This looks TOO bad. I was really scrappy at laying things out, everything was cut and paste, which looks good until it doesn’t, so it was Xerox to the rescue: We shrunk it to 75% and copied/degraded it and pasted it on the color squares.”
The name Civic Pride was not ironic. “We liked our sleepy town,” said Tozer, “but we were kind of playing it up. We never went out picking up litter or sprucing up ballfields or anything. ‘Civic Pride’ just sounded like a natural title for the 7”. Plus it made us laugh.”
“It was definitely a tongue-in-cheek salute to our town,” Offer said. “Any non-tongue-in-cheek salute to Sacramento would be heavy-handed and stupid. With a little nudge and a wink it comes off as more sincere.”
Just like this band, indie singles were basically passion projects. Tiny labels like Secret Center and Moo-La-La designed, silk-screened, Xeroxed, and folded all their own covers. And many often added fun little additions. The Bright Ideas silkscreened their New Years Day7-inch sleeve on manila envelopes. For Nar’s Holiday Routine single, the cover sleeve was made of wrapping paper and had what Discogs describes as “a personalized sticker that says ‘To: (the band hand wrote your name in the blank line) From: Nar.’” Civic Pride didn’t even include production info. The EP came out in 1994, though the sleeve didn’t say so. That same year, Yah Mos released their second EP, Off Your Parents, Tozer moved out of his mom’s place for good.
Miller put “Soda Time” on a Secret Center cassette complication called Xeroxica, which he considers the label’s best comp. “It got to the heart of what I wanted to convey.” That left five BPT songs unreleased.
In the late-90s, Soriano put four of those five on a homemade CD-R comp called The Sounds of Unsung Sacramento. He burned 50 and gave them away at shows. Tozer’s copy was shoved in a box in a closet somewhere. He no longer listened to CDs. Soriano didn’t know where his copy was either, so but his musician friend Charles Albright, who now ran Sacramento Records, searched for his for me.
Alongside songs by The Lazy J’s and Drifters and the Shadow (songs like “Let’s Go and 69” and “I Never Had A Job I Never Will”), The Sounds of Unsung Sacramento had all the unreleased tracks that BPT recorded, except one: a take on the outro music from the show Wild Wild World of Animals, which the band just called “Wild Wild World of Animals.”
The band felt like their hits were “Runnin’ from the Man,” “Lost Continent,” and “Wild Wild World of Animals.”
“That was always the fun song that we’d extend out,” Tozer said. “It became noisy, string-scraping, shaking the amps so they crashed. But the recording got lost. I don’t feel heartbroken about it, but I do think it would be cool to hear again. I remember going, ‘Whoa that was an interesting take,’ because I’d broken a string. Halfway through I had another melody section, so I had to wing it and keep it in tune, and I managed to pull it off. It was a high wire act.” Soriano thinks that song was their best. “The recording could’ve easily gotten recorded over,” said Tozer, “or lost in Micah’s morass of tapes. I’m sure it just disappeared in that somewhere, un-labeled.”
After some searching, Miller found the reel from the session, along with a cassette containing Micah Kennedy’s first mix of the session. It had Kennedy’s distinctive hand-writing on it and contained “Wild Wild World of Animals.” He sent me it to digitize. A friend with skills and a TASCAM digitized it for me.
Kennedy messed up the track list. He forgot to write “Runnin’ from the Man” before “Lost Continent.” And “Kendal Walked In” is strangely missing from this tape, even though it ended up on Soriano’s comp. Go figure. Maybe it is the song that actually got lost. If so, thank goodness that Soriano got a copy of it to preserve on this CD.
Offer couldn’t remember how many songs they wrote total, but did remember that after Tozer turned him onto The Meters, an American funk band that they covered once. “I feel like we had another 7-inch worth of music,” he said, “but we never had an album’s worth.”
Soriano said the band had other songs they didn’t record. “Maybe,” Tozer told me. “I’m sure we had one or two other songs, but I don’t remember.”
He didn’t have to. The half-story’s cracks were now filled.
As much as rage, rebellion, passion, and inspiration, what drove this underground music scene’s incredible creativity was boredom. “Sacramento is not the most exciting place. You have to make your own fun here,” said Tozer. “At that time, everyone was trying to amuse themselves and each other and have a laugh. A lot of us were pretty broke students. You didn’t have much money, but you had lots of time. Some bands would stick it out and go on tour, but a lot of Sacramento was little one-off side things, these cobbled together lineups.” One-and-done projects, he called them. Music was just something to do. It was not slick and professional. “Thinking about money and possibilities was something that we never did.”
Maybe when you live in a city that others dismiss or ignore, you get comfortable with your art being ignored too, and your need for external validation doesn’t necessary reach beyond your social circle.
“A lot of Sacramento’s ’90s music world was unvarnished,” said Tozer. “Not very polished, not very practiced, and not much self-promotion. Very anti. I’ve always loathed self-promotion. I think there was a fair amount of that here with people that were just like No, I don’t want to. No pictures. Please stay away! Whereas other scenes maybe are open to exposure. But also there was some seriousness behind it. People wanted to make good things as well. It wasn’t all send ups and comedy. Early on, before my time, Sacramento got known for something called funny punk. Outside there was this attitude of ‘Oh, Sacramento, that’s where those funny punk bands are from.’ Our world was a little more earnest, but still slapdash, still not really putting yourself out there.”
Maybe it’s dangerous to generalize much, especially to speak of the city’s music communities as some cohesive whole rather than as groups of friends, but Tozer and friends like Miller didn’t want music to be the way they made their living. They preferred to keep it fun by keeping it a hobby. “Then you kind of guard it, too,” Tozer said, “because it’s personal. Like, you wanna open your diary a little bit, but you don’t expose your whole self, either. You keep it a little close sometimes.”
If a band records, it’s easy to assume they want to be heard. With the American archetype of the rock star poisoning everything, and mainstream America’s hunger for money and power wired deep into our national psyche, it’s easy to assume musicians want to reach the greatest number of people. They don’t. Even some who do want to be heard set limits. And when you only press 50 to 500 copies of an album and never digitize it the way Secret Center used to, you can rest assured that it won’t be heard nearly as much as it could be—that it will remain secret.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but for myself, especially at that age, I found the world very big and almost overwhelming,” said Tozer. “Where some of my other friends could embrace it. Suddenly there were more people showing up to Sacramento shows from out of town. It’s like, What do they know? What are these people from Portland coming here for? Suddenly social circles were really widening, and I think that some people really wanted to keep it a little more insular. Not insular as in exclusive, but keep it to themselves a little more. To keep the nuances about it. To keep its sense of offhandedness. I don’t think anybody was trying to cultivate mystery. It was too small for that. But keep it light, keep it a little precious. I could be wrong. But that’s a feeling that I got from the time.”
“That is the one thing about Sacto at the time,” Soriano told me, “especially the punk scene in Midtown: It was very organic. Even people who did labels or put on shows, never tried to mold it into something or make it The Scene. That is probably why, though there was great music being made, and it did have a very loyal following in the underground, it never had a national rep in the mainstream—not like Athens, Austin, or Seattle. There were bands and promoters that tried to make Sacto one of those Great Music Cities, but what they were offering up was mostly Sacto versions of whatever was commercially hip at the time: Nü-Metal, funk metal, rock rap, radio alt rock, etcetera. No one outside of Sacto cared about our version of Korn or the Red Hot Chili Pepper, nor should they have.”
Looking back, Tozer doesn’t wish he’d promoted his bands more. Those bands just did what they did. But he is flattered when someone tells him, “Oh, you did that one song?” Or someone hears his music on a playlist or radio station or friend’s record player. “It’s funny,” he said. “Over all these years of relentlessly not pushing myself, certain songs have stuck with people. It’s still there. You do enough of it and it’s going to affect somebody.”
It certainly affected me. My appreciation created a circle that reached back to the band. “I’m touched that, all these years later, someone would care about that record,” Williams told me, “this goofy thing that these three dudes from this weird suburb put together. So thank you.”
“Making a record is optimistic,” said Offer. “The whole time you’re thinking, ‘Maybe this is going to be the best thing ever, and everybody’s going to love this!’ It is a communication. I do have one friend who makes things and will never put them out. But I do view making music as a communication. I have to like it first, before others can like it. It has to turn me on. It’s definitely for someone else, but to me, I don’t know why you’re working on it when you’re jammin’ it. When I’m down here and it’s fuckin’ kickin’ in the speakers, I’m like ‘Yes, this sounds so good!’ That’s the moment that’s always really exciting. One door is open and leading to the next, you’re like, ‘Oh, what if I do this to it and it gets cooler? And what if I do this to it and it gets cooler?’ That’s really exciting.” Songwriting, like listening, is a process of discovery. “It’s just exciting when you get turned on by music and then you’re doing it. Like Boulevard Park Trio: That was really liberating to make that kind of music. Like, ‘Oh, we love this. Look, we made our own thing like this!’ That was exciting. I don’t know how to explain it exactly. When I’m downstairs though, you’re just following along a path, and you’re just making it cooler and cooler. I think there’s even a thing with drum machines—You never want to stop making a B on drum machines. It’s like, oh if I just put a clave that goes clack clack, it sounds so cool. You never want it to be done. You just want to be making the beat and making the beat and making the beat. There’s something that innocent about it. It was something like the average listener can only pay attention to three or four things at one time, but musicians put all those things in there that nobody can hear because it’s fun to make music and it’s fun to make those things happen. It’s definitely like that with a drum machine if you ever got the bug for that.” Songwriting isn’t just about creating a melody and structure. It’s about facing possibility itself. “It’s: What could I make happen? What kind of song could there be in the world?”
Another lesson: sometimes you generate the best ideas—be they musical, scientific, or literary—when you’re just tinkering with no expectations. “Which is exactly what Boulevard Park was. He summarizes the stages in their two-year life as: ‘Let’s just do this while we’re waiting for Mike.’ ‘Okay, let’s play tonight.’ ‘Hey, people actually like this.’ ‘Here I am talking to a guy 20 years later about this song that he really likes.’ For Offer, “song craft is just managing those silly improve moments.” He often referenced a particular Jimmy Page interview he read. The interviewer is asking about the end of some heavy song where there’s studio chatter of the band joking around. The interviewer is amazed that they can play this heavy music and then be joking around after that. “Jimi Page is like ‘We. Are. Play-ing.” He was drawing attention to the word so often used in music, but whose meaning we can easily lose sight of: Playing. To play. Music seems like performance, but the musicians are having fun playing music. Playing is joy. “That’s totally how I feel about Boulevard Park Trio. It’s just some friends having fun playing, you know? Boulevard Park is pure joy.”
Offer’s life is proof that artists should keep low overheard and use that free time to make, make, make. A musical life is an endurance race. Never a sprint, it’s a marathon. The ones who succeed, if you want to call it that—not measured by financial rewards, but quality and creative output—are the ones who use their time to make art constantly, consistently. They work. “One of my favorite Prince books is the one someone did that’s just a studio log. I think its ’82 or ’83 to ’87. Back then at studios like Sunset Sound, you had to keep a detailed log, so they’re able to pull up a lot of information about what song he’s working on every single day. He’ll be working on, like, a joke-y B-side on Tuesday, then the next day he’s doing Purple Fucking Rain! You’re like, ‘How can he make this joke B-side next to this eternal masterpiece?’ To him, he’s just working. He’s turning himself on. He’s growing a little bit while he’s making Purple Rain, and he’s growing a little big while he’s making the funny B-side. He thinks it’s cool, and if he thinks it’s cool, then I want to see what it’s all about. I feel connected that urge. You’re always trying to move forward with it.”
By 1995, The Yah Mos were very busy. Through The Loft and Gilman Street, they got many more shows. They toured. They played the Bay Area constantly. It seemed like they played Gilman every other week. It became consuming. They added a second guitar player. That changed the dynamic of practice, and suddenly those instrumental jam sessions ended, and the Trio’s time passed. “We could’ve probably started the Boulevard Park Quartet or something,” Offer said with a laugh.
“I don’t remember it being a conscious We’re done,” said Tozer. “Especially at that age when you’re young, everything is moving really fast. Oh we’ve got to do this and this this weekend. Oh we’re going to record this. Oh we’re going to go down to this show.”
Offer didn’t remember the last Boulevard Park show. The Yah Mos had a very definite end. “I think we got in a fight,” he said. “We were supposed to play Gilman at night, and we decided not to go and stop being a band.” As the wise Ed Carroll said, playing in bands with friends is tricky, but it’s worth it. Band relationships get more complicated than your regular relationships. “The end of The Yah Mos was bitter,” said Offer. Where the Boulevard Park Trio was a carefree thing that picked up whenever they were in a good mood and nobody got uptight, The Yah Mos became a band who practiced in a bad mood and that ran into ego problems in the end. Things got so messy that some of the members didn’t speak for years.
“You change a lot between the ages of 17 and 24,” said Offer. “Young guys in their 20s don’t always know how to treat each other or know what’s going on with themselves either. You can be shitty to each other without knowing that you’re doing that. It’s intimate. That’s kind of like why guys always complain about women, and women always complain about men: in those intimate relationships, you’re not asking that from your regular friends. You know? You get exasperated with women because you don’t ask that from your regular friends. But in bands, you ask that of each other. Bands are intimate relationships, and they can be very frustrating to have those kind of relationships with people that you care about. You don’t ask those things of your usual friends.” He is grateful they are all friends again today, because musical relationships are tricky, and the relationships matter most.
Six months after The Yah Mos broke up, they made another go at it and tried to record a full album. It seemed foolish to waste all the songs they’d written. Dusty Reske, of the band Rocketship, had a studio in his house in Arcata, California. The Yah Mos drove up there to make a record in a weekend but didn’t finish it. “So the record sat up on the tapes there forever because we were poor and none of us had cars to get up there,” said Offer. “I don’t know how we got up there in the first place. Maybe we borrowed Tyler’s mom’s car? Whatever the case, we never finished it until years and years later.” When Offer got somebody to mix it, the band and many fans weren’t pleased with the results. “It was kind of half-finished and probably needed a little more love and care to be as good as the Yah Mos 7-inches were.” And that was that—on to the next thing.
By the end, The Yah Mos had started to like different kinds of music and moving in different musical directions. While Tozer moved toward ’60s material like Pet Sounds, Offer found Can and Brian Eno, and returned to his early love of highly danceable Prince and Madonna, Soul, and R&B. By 1995, Offer was playing music with another group of friends who lived at their band’s practice space. People it called T. Street. He spent most of his time there. “It got to a point where once Scott didn’t want me hanging around up there at The Loft,” said Offer. “So I’d wake up and walk there, hang out there all day, then go to sleep under stairs at night.” He could shower at T. Street, but those friends said he still smelled pretty bad.
He and that crew were also writing new music around their shared tastes, and they eventually formed the dance-punk bands !!! in ’96, and Out Hud in ’97. They borrowed the name !!! from the subtitles in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, which represented the Bushmen’s Khoisan clicking language as ‘!,’ but pronounced it chk chk chk. In 1996, Offer moved out of The Loft for good.
“It was so fleeting,” said Tozer, “but it was cool.” He could be talking about Boulevard Park Trio or youth itself.
Offer felt the same. “At the end of the day, even though the lineup changed, Yah Mos were me, James, and Tristan. That’s how I think of my friend group: me, James, and Tristan.”
Williams’ life was defined by those same friends and same band, too. “Those are the two guys I learned to play music with.”
“Nic always had this funny, outsized ambition,” said Tozer. “I remember him saying, ‘You know how they say in that song, in New York if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere’? We gotta go to New York! We gotta test this out!’ I was like ‘Eh, I don’t know.’ He moved to New York and managed to make it work. It was because Sinatra threw down the gauntlet. So there were people here who were like that and kept pushing. But not all of us were like that by any means.”
“We didn’t move to New York to make it,” said Offer. “We moved to New York because that seems awesome!”
When Offer’s new bands moved to New York in 2001, the punk Sac part of his life came to a quick end. “Stolen goods wouldn’t get me by in New York City,” he said. “I had to get a real job, so I started working at a deli, a daycare, as a manny for a while, and at an art supply store, then the band started blowing up and I was able to transition into music full-time. But I didn’t have a real job for all of my twenties. Because of Scot Soriano! If I had to pay rent somewhere, I would have had to figure something else out. But he really gave me one of the greatest gift an artist can get: free time. I feel good that I was able to do something with it. I could’ve just smoked pot all those years and not done anything, you know? But I learned so much with The Yah Mos and Boulevard Park Trio, and that led to chk chk chk and Out Hud and being able to experiment and try things.”
His bandmates said he still smelled when they moved to New York. “I’m much better about it now than I was,” Offer said, “but I’m still probably worse than most people my age.”
During the last 20 years, chk chk chk has since opened for Tame Impala overseas, opened for Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Reading Festival, and toured the world. On the surface, they couldn’t seem less punk. It’s funky. It’s soulful. But the spirit of it is completely punk. He draws a clear line from them back to BPT and The Yah Mos, which shaped his thinking and taught him that playing totally different styles of music is a punk thing to do.
The guitar-centric past matters, but they aren’t confided by it. As Offer sings in “Dancing Is the Best Revenge,” “The old days ain’t comin’ back / They ain’t comin’ back no more / They might as well be tied up in a sack on the ocean floor.”
Despite the music’s appeal, some people couldn’t stop focusing on Offer’s short shorts, which became his trademark at performances. “I wore them as kind of a joke for the first time at the Rickshaw Stop,” Offer told SF Weekly in 2017, before they played two shows at The Chapel. “And about 10 minutes into the show, a couple of girls screamed that they liked my shorts, so I thought that was cool. And then after the gig ended, we found out that someone had broken into our car and had stolen our passports and gear and everything. That included all my pants for the tour, so I was just like, ‘I guess I’m wearing these things from now on.’”
The Loft ran until 2001, when an angry, greedy neighboring bar owner lied to the cops that Loft residents were dealing drugs. “After a summer of surveillance, culminating in a visit from three police cars and a talking to,” said Soriano, “I knew that days were numbered. Rather than getting into a costly dragged out fight that we’d eventually lose, I kicked it in. There was a little grumbling, but mostly it was disappointment. For me it was a little bit of relief.” He and friends dismantled The Loft’s interior in 2006. After living his whole life in Sacramento, he moved to San Francisco in 2017, where he sells used records inside the independent bookstore where he works. Some things never change.
Last September, Sac hardcore musician Charles Albright found his copy of The Sounds of Unsung Sacramento CD-R compilation and sent files. I listened to them all in one sitting while my three-year-old daughter played with her doll house in front of me, wearing only socks, before she finally pulled the headphones from my ears and said, “Come play with me.” I did. The songs were potent—totally worth waiting for—though few things were as fun as playing with her. I listened to those unreleased songs constantly the whole week, along with Raffi’s greatest hits, which my daughter was listening to constantly that week. (“Ring, ring, ring, ring, banana phone!”) The BPT songs don’t reinvent the wheel, but ones like “Johnny Dagger” were hard to get out of your head, and worth releasing. Or not.
In 2018, members of The Knockoffs, The Trouble Makers, and The Four Eyes—some of Sac’s longest running indie bands from the ’90s—spoke to the city’s alt-weekly, the Sacramento News & Review, about their longevity. In their nearly three decades of playing, what had these musicians seen change about Sacramento? Or learned about playing music?
Knockoffs singer Dan Reynoso said, “The bands from Sacramento [like the Bananas] are pretty legendary out [East]. They may not have achieved commercial success, but they have reach.”
During the last 25 years, Knockoffs bassist Bobby Jordan said the biggest change he’s noticed is: “Most people our age stopped doing it.”
Tim Foster also noticed the changing audience: “Most young people go see other types of music. Really sloppy, trashy rock ‘n’ roll is not a thing with kids these days. There are less places to play and a smaller and older crowd.”
Why bother? Why kink your neck sleeping in so many tour vans and friends’ couches? Why drive so far to play for so few people? Why work shitty, non-musical jobs just so you can afford to release a few hundred copies of a record that so few people will hear? A record that you will still have extra copies of nearly 30 years later? Because that’s how some friends bond. And for some people, even us non-musicians who don’t have bands, the musical life is the only life. As the old Tower Records advertising slogan said, “No Music, No Life.”
What Knockoffs singer Dan Reynoso learned from 25 years playing in small punk bands was the most ethereal: “As weird as it sounds, it’s going to be about the experience of sleeping across the street on a piece of cardboard. Those are the stories that you remember. The shows are important, but I think when people start realizing it’s more about the experiences—those bands tend to stick around for 25 years.”
In the end, The Boulevard Park Trio’s life was a lot like underground Sacto’s ethos in a nutshell, which was embodied by Scott Miller’s Cassingle And Lovin’ It! tape series. “This Sacramento label forces bands to start, write two songs (probably the two best songs they’re gonna write anyway) and break up,” Secret Center’s 1996 newsletter stated, “leaving a legacy of nothing more than a flawless cassingle. That’s how legends are born, folks! Forget bands, magazines about bands, promo shots of bands, videos of bands and especially interviews with bands. In the cassingle universe, everyone has been freed of these burdens. In this modern day paradise, one need do nothing more than stand up straight, boldly (and BRIEFLY) state their case and then sit on down until the next brilliant idea comes along.”
It always does.