See and Be Scenes

Steve Greenberg

There are things in life we know we shouldn’t do but can’t help, like ordering fries at TK Burgers or compulsively searching “Bieber” on Twitter. Another thing we do that we wish we didn’t: slap labels on people. You do it; we do it. So in the process of assembling a lineup for OC Weekly’s Locally Grown music series at the Grove of Anaheim—the final show of which is on Saturday and features Reel Big Fish and other ska acts—we got to thinking about the labels we could apply to Orange County’s music world, which, contrary to what we’ve heard from some people, does exist.

How can we classify Orange County music, as a whole? That’s a tricky one; maybe the best word to use is “fractured.” It’s easier to segment the county by genres, pick a few places where you can see a certain scene thriving, and then let you, the reader, explore. The result may be overly simplistic and leave a lot of music out in the cold, but again, this is the inherent problem with labels. But we figure it can’t hurt to start a conversation about local music scenes, then let you guys tell us what we missed. “That’s really the beauty of Orange County,” says hype-catching DJ and Newport Beach native Steve Aoki. “It’s the pockets of community that are doing it themselves.” Consider the guide below a starting point for you to begin doing it yourself, too, whatever you fancy it to be.



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The Scene: Button-Down Indie
Hear it at Detroit Bar, Costa Mesa

We believe it was the Supreme Court of the United States that ruled the term “indie” is impossible to define, but you know it when you see it: Kids in slightly mussed hair, wearing flannels or American Apparel tees, guitars over their shoulders, emitting sounds that are less likely to offend grandma than to put her to sleep. Orange County’s biggest indie scene—geographically sprawling but close-knit—produces acts with real pop sensibilities, usually inspired by the wry hummability of the Shins rather than the frayed countercultural edge of, say, Sonic Youth. There are alt-country acts and singer/songwriters in the mix as well, as well as the bizarro hip-hop trio BLOK. The uniting feature seems to be a vibe of aw-shucks friendliness.

It’s a scene that has produced successes. A few years back, Detroit Bar-frequenters became infatuated with blues and soul, leading to a renaissance that shot Cold War Kids and Delta Spirit to national prominence. More recently, the overlapping harmonies and percussive patter of Local Natives—who gigged in Orange County for years as Cavil At Rest—became the toast of Pitchfork and KCRW, leading to a joint national tour with local kindred spirits the Union Line. Next up might be the Colourist and the New Limb, both of whom spackle puppy-eyed melodies over structurally segmented anthems.

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The Scene: North-County Scuzz
Hear it at the Continental Room, Fullerton
It’s easy to forget that grouchiness has given us some of the best music of all time. But there’s a batch of kids who flit between Anaheim warehouses, Fullerton record stores and Long Beach dives that certainly hasn’t forgotten. Take a listen to the vocals from half of the artists signed to Fullerton’s Burger Records, and you’ll hear a distinctive, constipated whine that sounds as if it were recorded at least 15 feet from a working mic, immersed in scuttling punk clamor and kissed with psychedelics.

Bands crossing chicken-wire surf guitars with hangover-haze atmosphere, such as the Growlers and My Pet Saddle, have kicked around Orange County for a while. But with the opening of a physical store for Burger Records last year (see “Who Are These Meatheads?” Oct 1, 2009), it feels as though grimy, irreverent art rock finally has a home in the county. Anaheim three-piece Audacity consistently astonish with their somersaulting ferocity, while La Habra’s Cum Stains mewl out lyrics as filthy as their name would lead you to expect. Fullerton’s Dahga Bloom, formerly the Living Suns, run with this crowd—their practice-space warehouse often doubles as a venue—though their hypnotic, tribal thrum comes with vocals that are less Black Lips and more Talking Heads. That’s not so surprising, by the way: Garage and psych might be in the majority, but there’s also room for nostalgic pop, scuffed-up blues and crossbreeding with the sunnier indie-pop scene. As for the whole grouchy thing, it’s more sonic than attitudinal. Grow out your handlebar mustache and put on a filthy, vintage, summer-camp tee, and you’ll find yourself part of the freaky family.

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The Scene: Descendents’ Descendants
Hear it at the Doll Hut, Anaheim
The pool of musicians and fans that identifies with the term “punk” in Orange County is vast and deep, as well it should be. The ’70s and ’80s saw our fair county give rise to entire wings of the movement; host some of Black Flag’s most notorious gigs; and birth such snotty legends as the Adolescents, the Vandals and TSOL. The ’90s were no slouch, either, spurring on innovation that was quickly dubbed heresy, from the Offspring’s rowdy sing-alongs to Throwdown’s sludge-whine to Social Distortion’s roots-rock devolution.


The great thing about having this rich legacy is not only that you have an old guard of show-goers and their kids, but also that a hefty contingent of bands who either reunited or never gave up is still delivering blistering sets on a near-weekly basis (see the Adolescents, Agent Orange, etc.). Young acts, such as Bad Religion revivalists Longway and throat-shredders the Sparring, have access to labels that give them a leg up by, say, helping to book Warp Tour dates. Upstarts such as the Yeastie Boys both pay fealty to punk and defile it—in the Yeasties’ case, by dressing as clowns. And all the splinter genres—hardcore, thrash, etc.—engage in a kind of a cold war locally, booking bills on consecutive nights at the same venues. Dingy joints such as Huntington Beach’s Surf City Saloon, Johnny’s Saloon and the Blue Café; Dana Point’s Coconuts; and Anaheim’s the Juke Joint are battlefields as well as classrooms. Go every evening of the week to one of these places, and you’ll come away with a history lesson.

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The Scene: Hootenannamericanabilly
Hear it at the Juke Joint, Anaheim

The bramble of genres represented at the yearly Hootenanny festival in Irvine isn’t easy to peg—there’s rockabilly, country, swing and the inexplicable Halloween-all-the-time saunter of psychobilly—but according to organizer/promoter Bill Hardie, all involved worship one deity: Elvis Presley. Greaser culture has been with the county for a long time, but Hardie recalls it really solidifying into the sprawling scene it is today after Hootenanny began in the mid-’90s. Evidence bears this out: In 1999, OC punk icon Mike Ness of Social Distortion went full-on folkie. The most recent local punk-to-pompadour transformation comes courtesy of X singer John Doe, who released an album of classic country tunes last year.

At the average rock club in OC, though, acoustic roots strumming improbably plays second fiddle to a vibrant something-or-other-billy scene. The cowpunk rhythms remain the same, but the lyrics, intensity and vocal styles vary. South County’s Faraway Boys have built a big following on a tried-and-true blueprint, while acts such as the Whorehouse Massacres dabble in ghoulish themes—and, in this particular band’s case, makeup—as they muddle genre lines. The Sugar Daddys, a reconstituted bunch of scene veterans, claim to play “neo-rockabilly,” though you might not be able to tell what’s different. Rockabilly and psychobilly are staggeringly pervasive at most local punk clubs; the Juke Joint, however, boasts regular “psychonights,” promoted by fliers with zombie imagery that often somehow references the King.

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The Scene: Ska Lifers
Hear it at the Locally Grown showcase at the Grove of Anaheim on Saturday; the Ska Parade 20th Anniversary Party at the Glass House on Sept. 25
It has been nine years since No Doubt released an album and 10 years since they released an album that could even vaguely be described as “ska.” Reel Big Fish had their last real big hit 13 years back. And Ska Parade—Tazy Phillips’ influential, KUCI-birthed radio show—can no longer be heard on the radio. Orange County was ground zero of the 1990s’ “third-wave” ska revolution. Chase Long Beach, Starpool and Half Past Two, all founded in the past decade, remain active. But have the trumpets and checkerboard motifs finally been laid to rest? “Ska never dies,” Phillips says in a tone so chipper it’s almost ominous. “It always manages to continue through the thick and thin.”

Case in point: For the first time, Phillips was granted the opportunity to operate a “Ska Stage” at four dates on the 2010 Warped Tour, and by the Irvine resident’s account, the bands weren’t in want of a crowd. But the scene certainly isn’t as cohesive and consistent as it once was; Phillips struggles to offer the name of a single venue where you can hear ground-level ska any night of the week. Instead, he says, it’s a community reunion whenever the old standbys play at one of the region’s catch-all venues, such as the Grove of Anaheim or the House of Blues. And to be sure, there are new acts, though they might not identify so closely with the term “skank.” The Fox Theater Pomona hosted the yearly Ska In the Park festival this past June, and Orange County was represented well, from the punk ska of Save the Swim Team to the electro fusion of Pilot Touhill.

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The Scene: Downtown DJs
Hear it at the Crosby, Santa Ana
The Low End Theory night at the Airliner club in Los Angeles has caught a lot of buzz over the past few years as a breeding ground for a new wave of experimental, bass-heavy hip-hop. Little do the kids snaking out the door there realize, though, that there’s a club within orbiting distance that doesn’t boast as much hype, but often hosts some of the biggest names in instrumental hip-hop—Flying Lotus, Nosaj Thing and Gaslamp Killer, plus DJ Free the Robots, one of the founders of the miracle on Broadway Avenue known as the Crosby.

The dimly lit restaurant and bar is the center of OC’s arty DJ culture, but Avalon and Detroit in Costa Mesa also book some of the same crate-diggers. The defining sound is murky and omnivorous, stitching together jazz with glitch with rap with curveball genres such as, say, kraut rock. Rappers and rock bands from various other scenes enter the mix, but unless they’re wearing wide-brimmed baseball caps and tastefully oversized tees, they stand out a little bit.

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The Scene: Bro Metal
Hear it at Surf City Saloon, Huntington Beach
At least one Huntington Beach bar has taken to posting signs discouraging entry to anyone wearing Affliction gear—you know, those mixed-martial-arts-inspired black shirts festooned with interlocking, tattoo-esque patterns, usually snuggly covering enormous pecs. But the prohibition is an exception in beach-close regions of Orange County. And where there are MMA fans, there is metal. It is, of course, a diverse genre, but go along the coast or inside venues such as the Galaxy Theater, and the rocking comes with a distinct whiff of energy drink and a paucity of self-consciousness. We’re talking bands such as the Octane Mob, who proudly name check P.O.D., Godsmack and Black Sabbath as their influences.

Even the ’roided-out stuff doesn’t seem a far cry from the punk-derived metal that came out of OC earlier in the decade in the form of Avenged Sevenfold and Atreyu. After all, skinny kids can wear graphic tees, too. But there’s a crop of metal bands that flirts with the indie crowd as well, such as WulfBane, Pistolero and Beta Wolf—all musically serious yet willing to play alongside goofier and froofier acts. They may be the next ones to rise out of the scene; they already seem able to go anywhere.

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The Scene: Hot Topic Rock
Hear it at Chain Reaction, Anaheim
Orange County’s best, most iconic all-ages venue boasts a nightly lineup that rotates through genres. The constant, though, is the distinct vibe of youth. Don’t think that means all boister and smiles: This is the county’s emo capital, and the punk, metal and hardcore bands who come through here prize, above all else, anguish.

But the newest crowd on the block is inspired by the hip-pop success of Gym Class Heros and 3OH!3. This movement should have been predicted as the inevitable outcome of mall music’s evolution—after all, they’re just mashing up the sugary elements of pop, punk, hip-hop and rock. Huntington Beach’s Hellogoodbye almost predated the scene, throwing an AOL Instant Messenger sound effect into one of their early singles. Now, the soundtrack to teenage chat-speak is everywhere: Locals Uh Oh! Explosion even hit you with a lyrical “OMG” within seconds of visiting their MySpace. EyeAlaska’s sensitive white-boy R&B has made them a rising star in the Warped Tour world, while Close But Not Quite have racked up tens of thousands of MySpace plays with what sounds like a pepped-up rehash of rap rock. Like it or not, this stuff might just be the future.

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The Scene: Rock y Roll
Hear it at Downtown Santa Ana

The years have seen the county’s alternative-Latino-music world swell and contract; in 2004, scene booster Jesús “El Pelos” Olvera told the Weekly, “I’m in love with Orange County rock en español, although it’s like an abusive relationship.” The seed sown by him and his amigos led to a renewal in the middle part of the decade, but with the shuttering of Latin club JC Fandango’s Anaheim location, the loss of the SolArt gallery and bands moving on or breaking up, the scene may be in semi-hibernation again.

But Santa Ana still grows young, intriguing bands who draw inspiration from lands to the south. And with the multi-ethnic hipsterfication of downtown over the past few years, there’s a more diverse space for them to fill. El Centro Cultural de Mexico hosts occasional shows and open-mic nights. Proof Bar’s Sunday-night Wreck Hall regularly features such as scrappy indie rockers Street Spirit and My Machete. The promisingly adventurous jarocho rockers ¡Aparato! formed this past June, just in time to play Santa Ana’s Downtown Summer Block Party. SolArt puts on an online radio program spotlighting the bueno stuff, and acoustic alternative act Taller Sur have been rocking Chicano-studies crowds for more than four years now.


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The Scene: Beach Buds
Hear it at the Coach House, San Juan Capistrano
Where there are surfers and medical-marijuana licenses, there are surfer bands and stoner bands and bands who cross the two. The sudden rise of Huntington Beach reggae rockers the Dirty Heads—their single “Lay Me Down” has hit No. 1 on the alt-rock radio charts—came after more than a decade and a half of gigging in a scene replete with acts heavily influenced by Sublime. Up next might just be Seedless, whose well-produced and cavernous takes on white-boy dread grooves are going to sound reallllly good if a certain ballot proposition passes in November.

The Coach House and sister club the Galaxy in Santa Ana play host to a number of these bands, as well as those in a related universe: earnest, singer/songwriter surfer-bum acts such as Marc B. There is also swaggering, sorority-girl-approved beach blues stuff such as Pawn Shop Kings. All of this material is pitch-perfect for sound-tracking chillaxed parties, which means it’ll never really go out of style.

Use Current Location

Related Locations

Detroit Bar - Closed

843 W. 19th St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627


The Continental Room

115 W. Santa Fe Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92832


Doll Hut

107 S. Adams St.
Anaheim, CA 92802


The Juke Joint

735 N. Anaheim Blvd.
Anaheim, CA 92805


The Crosby - Closed

400 N. Broadway
Santa Ana, CA 92701


Surf City Saloon - Closed

18528 Beach Blvd.
Huntington Beach, CA 92648


Chain Reaction

1652 W. Lincoln Ave.
Anaheim, CA 92801


Downtown Santa Ana Artists Village

Broadway and 3rd St
Santa Ana, CA 92701

The Coach House

33157 Camino Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675


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