Listening to music can be a profoundly ecstatic experience. So it’s no great surprise that researchers have found listening to music floods our brains with dopamine even long after the song has ended.
Music is also, as most of us have experienced, a potent social glue. If you’ve ever been to a crowded concert hall, seated in front of a symphony orchestra or moshing in a punk rock pit, you’ve probably felt that being at a musical performance is more than just a night out, it’s one way of communicating belonging (studies show that people who affiliate with similar musical tastes often also share core values). Sharing music increases cultural cohesion, or, in other words, music creates community.
Salt Lake has a long history of interesting and surprising music-centric communities. Guided by the baton of Maurice Abravanel, our city has long sustained a love of classical music and supported a symphony orchestra on par with those of much larger cities. Memories of the city’s hardcore punk rock scene of the 90s still linger as we remember spaces like the old Speedway Café. And the growth of festivals such as the Salt Lake Arts Council’s Twilight Concert series, for many years orchestrated by Casey Jarman, and the GAM Foundation Jazz Series have done the incredible job of bringing acts big and small to this little crossroads of the West.
This month, CATALYST starts a new series called Change Agents that looks at people and organizations who are moving Salt Lake forward into new realms—creatively, socially, politically. Some will be names you have heard before, others may be unfamiliar (those who are either new or work quietly behind the scenes). In this first installment, CATALYST looks at change agents in the local music scene. Though the list was long, we have chosen to recognize five organizations and individuals in the Salt Lake music scene who are helping create positive community and cultural cohesion.
At his westside recording studio, Mike Sasich is making sure local musicians have a place to lay down tracks. The annual Crucialfest, what is developing into Salt Lake’s own SXSW, reveals Salt Lake’s underground love affair with heavy metal. A look back at the era of poster artist Leia Bell reminds us of how much visual art can nurture a music scene. Voices from KRCL’s past and present remind us of the power of community radio. And, new kid on the block Diabolical Records is nourishing a scene of young millennial rockers. Together, these five figures are agents of change, creating new cultures and communities and making our city a surprising, vibrant and unique place to live.
Associate editor, CATALYST
Mike Sasich: SLC’s special sauce
– Benjamin Bombard
Look at the credits on the albums by the Salt Lake City-based bands you love and, regardless of the musical genre, chances are they all share something in common. Whether it’s the latest Talia Keys blues-rock record Fool’s Gold, the debut EP from the ladies’ folk trio Canyons, or Folk Hogan’s rip-roaring circus-punk record The Show, you’ll notice a theme. They were all produced, recorded, mixed and/or mastered by Mike Sasich at his Man vs Music recording studio—a name, Sasich says, inspired by his daughter who commented once on her father’s intense and solo efforts to make music, almost like he was doing battle.
With over 13 years of professional music production experience, Sasich has earned a reputation for making good musicians sound great for a reasonable price on a quick turnaround. A gifted and in-demand guitarist, Sasich has the technical know-how, gear and musical ear to help bands craft their sound, record albums and refine the sonic mix, channeling and refining the diverse sound of a growing city.
The shortlist of bands that have turned to Sasich for their production needs is a who’s-who of Salt Lake’s most prominent musical acts, including Candy’s River House, Night Sweats, Bronco, Starmy, Color Animal, The Moths and many others.
Essentially self-taught, Sasich brings an incredibly eclectic range of musical interests and influences to his work, from Chopin and Rachmaninoff to Motown, Led Zeppelin, Throbbing Gristle, Neu, Miles Davis, Pavement, Gram Parsons and Fela Kuti. His record collection is so immense that to support its full and ever increasing weight he had to reinforce his home’s floor.
Sasich’s studio has moved locations a number of times since it started in his house as a side gig to his work producing live sound at concert venues. In the early days, cables ran all through the house, up the stairs, from room to room. There were amps in the living room and bathroom. His bedroom doubled as the control room. The studio’s latest location, in Glendale’s industrial sector, is, says Mike Sartain, frontman for the local rock band Starmy, “one of the best recording rooms in the city” and “beautiful” to boot.
City Weekly recently named Sasich the best music producer in town. Music and pop culture blogger/writer Gavin Sheehan says Sasich is one of the first names that comes to mind when a “band needs an album made super professional on a tight budget.
“Mike has a way of working with musicians to get the best they can out of stuff that isn’t prominent or may be lacking in a song,” Sheehan said.
“He’s an extra member of the band,” said Sartain. “He’s invested in what he puts out. How he mixes, the equipment he uses, and the recording rooms at his studio—it’s the special sauce for a lot of music in this city.”
Crucialfest: A lion among sheep
— Z. Smith
Salt Lake has—probably since Black Sabbath’s first tritone progression—always had a heavy music scene. The Heavy Metal Shop, which opened in 1987, and its easily recognized monochromatic skull and block letter logo, stands as a firm testament of that deeply rooted history. So it should come as no surprise that Salt Lake is also the home to one of the country’s most important heavy metal festivals, Crucialfest. Yet, somehow, Crucialfest and Salt Lake’s heavy metal scene remains a hidden undercurrent for many local residents.
Crucialfest 6 held its 6th annual weeklong, multi-venue event just last month. This year, the festival featured over 50 national and international bands—Form of Rocket (SLC), Wizard Rifle (Brooklyn),
Accidente (Madrid, Spain)—in nine different showcases. These heavy metal and hardcore punk acts lit up the city, playing intimate, small spaces—Kilby Court, Metro Bar, The Art Garden, and The Urban Lounge. With its the impressive number of bands, diversity of sound (within the hardcore genres) and its multi-venue format, this homegrown festival is being likened to the early days of South by Southwest. “Crucialfest is putting SLC’s metal scene on the map,” says Kory Quist, guitarist and vocalist for local sludge metal band Making Fuck, who made its third appearance at this year’s festival.
For those who are still surprised, here’s proof of Salt Lake’s heavy music cred straight from the source. “[The metal scene] has always been pretty strong here,” confirms Heavy Metal Shop owner Kevin Kirk, “People perceive Utah as just this Mormon thing and that’s all, but there are so many different and talented artists here.”
So, in 2011, local musician Jarom Bischoff, after parting ways with his former band Loom, was looking for “something to do locally.” The void left after leaving his post-hardcore band sparked a simple realization: “There wasn’t a local festival that represented either local heavy music or independent heavy music and I thought there might be a place for such a thing here.” And so, in the land of pilgrims and our-father-who-art-in-heaven, Crucialfest was born—a brutal lion among sheep.
“We’ve always been about heavy music, so we stick with that…mostly,” says Bischoff. “[T]he type of rock and metal that we include in Crucialfest brings sonic intensity, gripping live performance, technical musicianship, passion, and purpose.” But Crucialfest is about more than just a good time. One of Bischoff’s most important goals is to make this Utah event a networking hub for local and regional bands. “It’s small and way more intimate than some huge ridiculous camping festival,” says Bischoff. “A person who comes to Crucialfest will leave with new bands that they love, bands they never heard before.” And this intimacy is exactly the point. “We’re not about getting a bunch of big names and making a killing,” says Bischoff. “We’re about promoting the most sincere, credible artists we can find.” And, year by year, one show at a time, Crucialfest is changing the scene, creating a place where artists can do what they do best, uncensored, unhindered, on their own terms.
But in the end, this isn’t enough, “It takes a lot of work to keep a scene alive, let alone build one,” says Bischoff. So what can we do to build up the scene and further the work started by Bischoff and so many before him? “Go to shows. Pay the cover. Support your friends’ bands. Buy merch. Put your money where your mouth is.” And, with local support each year this homegrown heavy music festival will continue making waves locally and regionally, bringing Salt Lake and its talent center-stage.
Leia Bell: the artist and her muse(ic)
– Sophie Silverstone
Visual art and music. Together, these two forms have defined recent generations of youth and creative movements. Think of the ’60s and the iconic poster art that defined the psychedelic rock era. We can all picture Wes Wilson’s melting letters and Victor Moscoso’s vibrant colors. Now think of the Salt Lake City music scene, circa 1999, and what visual do you get? Likely, you are recalling the bold colors and rough portraits characteristic of the artist Leia Bell.
Bell was just finishing her undergrad at the University of Utah in printmaking when she met Phil Sherburne, a picture perfect ’90s surfer/rocker with long blonde hair who worked out of his wood shop on a westside street and had recently purchased the neighboring lot to start a new music venue he named after the street it was on, Kilby Court. At the time, Sherburne was singlehandedly operating the venue, ticketing, running the sound, fliers, answering phones and receiving and previewing cassette tapes in the mail from bands. Bell offered to help. Sherburne suggested screen-printing posters. The rest is Salt Lake rock and roll history.
While most of Bell’s posters for the next decade advertised Kilby shows, Bell’s reputation as a poster artist also got her poster commissions for big name acts—Elvis Costello, the Decemberists, Devandra Banhart, Death Cab for Cutie, Fiona Apple, My Chemical Romance, Rilo Kiley, The Shins—playing at larger venues like Kingsbury Hall.
Bell’s work also attracted attention outside of the tiny Salt Lake music scene. In 2004, authors Paul Grushkin and Dennis King immortalized Bell’s art in their book Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion. “The roots of the silkscreen movement were laid down in Austin, Texas in the ‘80s,” wrote Grushkin and King, “[where] poster makers…were beginning to create something new, original, and vibrant, with a strong, independent music scene…[Today] young people all over the globe are furiously pumping out concert and event posters from kitchen tables, garages, home studios…Others are just as feverishly tracking down and collecting them.”
The demand for these new rock posters, as suggested by Grushkin and King, was certainly evident to Bell and Sherburne (to whom she is now married). Before long, says Sherburne, “she was making more off the posters than we were making off the shows. It was almost like the shows were a means to the posters.” These days a Leia Bell poster on dking-gallery.com still goes for top dollar, from $35 to $500.
Times have changed; concert promotion has moved mostly to the digital arena. Flyers and posters, says Bell, “feel trivial now. It’s just a piece of memorabilia sold at merch tables.” Bell and Sherburne have moved on from the music scene. They now run the local frame shop Signed and Numbered, while raising their family of three children, but for many fans Bell’s work will always define a generation of music in Salt Lake and will continue to inspire new artists yet to come.
KRCL: The voice of community
– Katherine Pioli
Salt Lake City will probably always have a dominant homogenous culture that is white and Mormon and listens predominantly to the top 20 hits on corporate radio stations, but this small city also has a multitude of vibrant music-based counter cultures all of whom in one way or another owe their existence to a once little (now not-so-little) alternative radio station, KRCL (90.9 fm). Back in the day, the folks who started Salt Lake’s first community radio station (in 1979) could also be found hanging out at Cosmic Aeroplane Books and the Blue Mouse art house theater. “We were the non-Mormons, the Democrats, the LGBT,” recalls Barb Guy, former on-air host, volunteer and board representative for KRCL, “and we started the station because we were concerned that the voices in our community were not being heard.”
In giving voice to otherwise hidden communities, KRCL brought people, outsiders in the valley, together and created a network that supported alternative political initiatives—Deb Levine’s nuclear waste update—local musicians, and businesses—Raunch Records and Smokey’s Records (closed in 1995). A decade later, the station’s diversity of sounds and voices were still attracting new and young listeners.
Current KRCL program director and on-air host Ebay Jamil Hamilton first set foot in the station as a 13-year-old summer intern, in 1992. Soon after, Hamilton was offered an early morning slot on the radio and began spinning soul records for listeners. “I was too young to drive,” recalls Hamilton. “So my mom took me to the station and would sleep on the couch while I played. At such a young age, to be able to identify myself with something like KRCL, to be proud of something I was doing, was really powerful.” Today, KRCL continues to encourage youth involvement with Loud and Clear, the state’s only youth-produced radio program (the program is also co-supported by Spy Hop and facilitated by volunteer Shannalee; listen in Saturday nights, 9-10 pm).
In the early 2000s, the station hit a rough patch. The city was growing, says Hamilton, but listenership was stagnant. In an attempt to save the station, a huge reorganization occurred, workweek daytime volunteer dj shows were cut and replaced with paid djs. Playlists were streamlined into sets more generally appealing to the average listener. The quirkier on-air elements, community updates, poetry readings, activist alerts, were axed. Many of the original KRCL founding members were dismayed. KRCL, they felt, was no longer a true community radio station.
Though a little less off-the-wall and eclectic, KRCL has continued to be perhaps the city’s strongest supporter, promoter and network builder for local alternative politics and music. “When I was younger,” says Hamilton, “on a Friday night there was one cool thing going on in the city. Now we have five or more things to choose from every night and I think KRCL has made that happen by exposing people to national and local artists so when they book at a venue here, people show up.”
Talia Keys is one such local musician who has benefitted from local exposure through KRCL. “I think I’ve been live on KRCL eight different times in the last few years to promote different projects,” says Keys who recently went on air ahead of her performance at Pride Fest and who kickstarted sale of her album Fool’s Gold at a KRCL release party last year. “What they do for us, it means everything. To get play on such a widely listened to media is huge for independent artists like me.”
From their sponsorship of Living Traditions and the Twilight Concerts series, to their free online events calendar listing local performances, to their release parties and live in-studio sessions, KRCL continues to be an essential platform from which local musicians and alternative local communities can build their sound and grow their voice.
Diabolical Records: Punk rock passion project
– Katherine Pioli
On Friday nights in midsummer, on a one-way street once known as Plum Alley, the center of Salt Lake’s historic Chinatown, a crowd often gathers. Their vibe is part college dorm party, part anarchist collective, part garage rock concert. The scene is decidedly young—evident even to the author who, barely in her thirties, still considers herself pretty hip to the jive. Bodies fill the narrow alley forcing drivers who turn down the lane to question whether it’s really a street or just one large sidewalk. There are boys dressed in skirts and done up in black make-up. There are girls with nose rings and bowl cut hair—the style popular among middle school boys in the 90s. There are lots of bicycles. And from the doorway of a one-story brick building comes sound, music, mostly fast guitars. This is Diabolical Records. More than just a record shop, Diabolical is the hub for Salt Lake’s new alt-punk and experimental music scene.
“Diabolical fills a niche, an element in our city that’s really thriving right now,” says Salt Lake’s music scene Yoda and indy musician Will Sartain. “They are doing progressive stuff and building a community around them.”
Owners Alana Boscan and Adam Tye, two Salt Lake natives, opened Diabolical Records two and a half years ago. It was a passion project for the two music enthusiasts, one that almost didn’t happen after a bid to buy the closing record shop Slowtrain failed when a bank refused the loan application. So Boscan and Tye decided to start from scratch. They opened a pop-up store at the city’s temporary Granary Row project, quickly attracting enough interest to encourage them to look for a permanent location. When the Plum Alley location (actually Edison St.) became available they jumped on the opportunity.
The community they’ve since fostered could be considered the legacy of Salt Lake’s hardcore punk past, the same one immortalized in the movie SLC Punk and recently remembered by Salt Lake Tribune writer Rich Kane in an article about the old Speedway Cafe. But while the city’s 1980s punk scene was characterized by intense aggression and violence, the Diabolical scene of crust punk (influenced by hardcore and metal), street punk and art punk (considered post-punk, experimental and avant-garde) reflects the new generation’s embrace of diversity and self-expression. “One of the biggest things for us,” says Tye, “is promoting female and non-binary folks in the Salt Lake music scene. It’s our mission to get as involved as we can in promoting equality in music.”
On a recent evening music once again poured out of Diabolical’s open doors where inside the pop garage punk band Baby Ghosts had taken the floor in front of two dozen appreciatively nodding heads. The donation bucket was passed around; all shows at Diabolical are open to all ages and free with a suggested donation. This time, however, the money wasn’t going to the musicians but to fund a new summer camp, the Rock and Roll Summer Camp for Girls.
“I had gone by the shop to put up flyers for another event,” says Rock and Roll Camp Director Amy Stocks, “and Andy was instantly supportive, so later when we were thinking of an all-ages venues for our fundraiser we asked [Diabolical] and were just great.”
Selling records is certainly part of Diabolical’s business, but supporting musicians and music initiative like Stocks’ camp is what makes Boscan and Tye a real asset for the community. Last March, they helped local band Foster Body put out their first album, hosting the release party and getting the album distributed to various stores around the country. That was a big step for Diabolical, and one that they hope to continue doing for other local bands. And, in the meantime, Diabolical will continue, each weekend, to turn Plum Alley (Edison St.) into the city’s most happening place for punk rock since punk died. u