Goth freaks, musical magicians, McLovin’ doppelgangers, hardcore punks and weekend warriors would let loose at any house, garage, field or ridge around San Luis Obispo before COVID-19.
Up-and-coming “DIY” musicians haven’t played live music for crowds in over a year. The cancellation of all performances has cost them and their fans many once-in-a-lifetime memories that come with the lively experience. Still, musicians and supporters eagerly anticipate the revival of the DIY music scene now that the outlook of the pandemic is brighter than ever.
Roger Chevalier, an industrial engineering senior, frequented shows at homes, Cuesta Ridge and student-favorite donut shop SloDoCo before the pandemic.
As a transfer student, he had to assimilate into Cal Poly quickly, since he was only going to be in SLO for two years. The DIY scene played a crucial role in making him feel at home in SLO.
“When you walk into a DIY show, everyone instantly becomes family. It helped me feel comfortable and grounded in SLO because I had someplace to go where I fit in and belonged,” said Chevalier.
During the pandemic, Chevalier listened to bands who recorded music, but said he misses the authentic experience of seeing his favorite performers in person.
“My favorite band to see is Autopipe. The album they released during the pandemic is great, but there’s something that can’t be matched by seeing a band like that in person,” said Chevalier.
Autopipe — comprised of forestry senior Oliver Tawney (rhythm guitar), environmental earth and soil science senior Liam Graham (drums), architecture senior Arjun Urbonas (lead guitar), and city and regional planning senior Hank McKay (bass) — are known for their outrageous live performance antics and “down for anything” attitude.
Autopipe last played on Loomis Street the same week that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in 2020. At that time, SLO had zero confirmed cases and Cal Poly students had not yet fled from campus.
There is optimism from Autopipe that live music will return soon — California Governor Newsom set June 15 as a goal to lift most COVID-related restrictions. Still, there is a painful possibility that Autopipe and other graduates may not play another show in SLO.
“Maybe I’m super optimistic and foolish, but I believe we’ll be able to play a show before we move [out of SLO],” said Tawney.
If the group cannot grace SLO with another memorable extravaganza, McKay and Graham said they would miss the one-of-a-kind social scene and friends they made. Urbonas will miss “the addicting presence of being loud and heinous.”
Autopipe is only one of the dozens of acts that haven’t performed for a year. Liberal arts and engineering studies senior Frank Homolka is the guitarist for WUMPUS, a three-piece that mixes country twang with grungy rock ‘n roll. He is joined by wine and viticulture junior Jon Achee on drums and communication studies junior Andy Sherar on bass.
Homolka is leaving SLO after he graduates this spring, and will miss the feeling of playing music for others.
“Playing live music for a crowd is the highlight of my life. It’s where I feel the most alive, engaged and where I can get lost in what I’m doing,” Homolka said. “Being able to play live was a dream.”
Besides playing music, Homolka contributes to the DIY scene as president of the Music Production Union (MPU). With MPU, Homolka organized events and performances for bands trying to get a foothold in the local scene. Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced MPU to cancel its second annual Arch Graveyard concert that was slated to host numerous artists in May of 2020.
Whether they be musicians or organizers, Cal Poly students achieved a quintessential “Learn By Doing” experience outside the classroom because of the DIY Scene.
That anyone can relive past performances from groups like Honeyboys, Superbloom, Corpse Thrower and Blurred and find resources on venues and bands by visiting @slo.diy on Instagram. The page is an example of how a Cal Poly student has learned skills by going out and simply doing it.
“[@slo.diy] started as a hobby. However, I realized that I could use this as a real-life experience and do more. I’ve developed social media marketing skills creating this online community and putting out formal statements about Black Lives Matter and misogyny within the music industry and local scene,” said @slo.diy in a direct message.
The most essential “Learn by Doing” lesson the owner of @slo.diy has discovered by being involved in the DIY scene is that creating and nurturing relationships is a crucial part of “making it” in the music industry.
“Folks doing DIY shows are open to new bands playing gigs at their houses. That same freshly formed band won’t play at a bigger venue like the Fremont Theater unless they know someone or establish themselves first. If you take the time and effort to make friends with the community, the community will help you,” said @slo.diy.
The owner of @slo.diy wishes to remain anonymous for privacy and to keep the account as official as possible.
Musicians have to start somewhere. No band will book a show anywhere in town until they prove to venues that they can fill the building. Because of the DIY scene, rock ‘n roll magic band Pancho and the Wizards supported national touring acts FIDLAR and Together Pangea in 2019 at the Fremont Theater and SLO Brew Rock, respectively.
Tristan Wildey, frontman for the established SLO band, spent many years involved in SLO’s music scene and understands the critical role that the DIY scene plays in developing artists and contributing to the city’s culture.
“The DIY scene allows bands to start small and build a fanbase. Once they max out DIY venues, then they can branch out to other venues that hold 200 to 300 people, but there’s not a lot of places like that here,” said Wildey.
Pancho and the Wizards performed at the SLO Guild Hall in February of 2020 with Together Pangea and Tropa Magica. The Guild Hall, located on Broad Street, gives off school dance vibes with its hardwood floors and concrete walls, but is a versatile building that can host at least 300 hundred people for a concert.
It’s a bridge between DIY venues — houses, bars and SloDoCo — and professional concert spaces. However, Wildey says the Guild Hall, which is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, is hesitant about hosting concerts.
Still, Wildey and the band regard it as a candidate for shows in the future.
It is challenging to be a musician in SLO, but being a musician is a labor of love. The tenacity, ingenuity and creativity it takes to make successful shows work make the DIY scene exceptional.
Musicians and organizers used to sneak 100 to 200 people into a house on Jeffrey Street plastered with mattresses and strategically placed amps to evade SLO’s unbending noise ordinances. Only their concern to protect the community during a global pandemic trumped their resolve to put on shows.
“Music is a moment in time, and once it ends, it goes away forever. Creating that experience for people, whether as a musician or organizer, is my most favorite thing that I’ve ever been a part of, and I miss it more than anything in the world,” said Wildey.
Pancho and the Wizards will be storming back to stages with a recharged and refined sound when it’s possible. In a demoralizing time, it’s critical to keep grinding.
“Even though it’s super discouraging, and everything sucks right now, all you artists and creatives need to keep going – keep progressing yourselves and your art,” said Wildey.