Part I: Who said I needed a reason?
By Kyle Melton
[Editor’s Note: “Shocker in Gloomtown: Part I” is the first installment in a five-part series by the DCP looking at the past, present and future of the Dayton music scene. This series was originally run in the DCP in 2008.]
You never know where lightning will strike. In the early 1990s, Dayton seemed an unlikely target. The success of three revolutionary bands coming from disparate points on the musical landscape, however, captured national attention and focused it sharply on Dayton. Other numerous vibrant, eclectic bands on the scene at the time benefited from an informal network of venues, promoters and record stores, enabling the bands to create a momentum that would put Dayton on the national map as a center for emerging new sounds.
Located on Brown Street, Trader Vic’s Emporium served as a hub of activity in the local music scene. Proprietor Vic Blankenship implemented a strategic tactic that would virtually make his store synonymous with the Dayton underground music scene.
“When we first opened,” explained Blankenship, “my first employee was Mike Justice, who was a singer for Scorched Earth Policy, and he was really connected with the local scene. I wanted people that really knew music and knew about bands that no one else did. I wanted to make sure we were as cutting-edge as we could be. With everybody being in a band and doing shows and putting on shows, it meant that everybody knew about us.”
During the early ‘90s, one of the most prominent and influential promoters in Dayton was Ken Gross, who put on shows such as Network Sights and Sounds. After working with Chuck King at the Building Lounge (now Jazz Central on East Third Street), Gross attempted to step in and fill the void left by the closing of that venue and the near shut-out from other local venues toward the burgeoning underground scene.
“When the Building Lounge closed,” said Gross, “[I did it] because I wanted to see it, because it was what I liked to go do. Nobody else was doing it, so I’ll do it. That’s really how I got started. That was my original motivation. The space I had upstairs [at Front Street], it was actually me and Jamy Holliday that rented that space. It was [Haunting Souls’] practice space, and I did shows there on the weekend.”
As bands flocked to the Front Street warehouses on East Second Street, shows hosted by Gross, as well as Jeff Piper at the Gutter Center and soundman Paul McDermott in his own loft, introduced such bands as Nation of Ulysses to the eager ears of Dayton.
“Having those bands available for people in this town to see,” said McDermott, “and gathering influences from a wider variety of artists than was conventionally available to someone at the age of 15, is obviously something that helped form all of those people.”
Within earshot of these illicit shows, a small, independent studio in the Front Street Annex provided an opportunity to document the emerging new sounds. Opened by Joe Buben in 1983, Cro-Magnon Studio was a small recording studio with minimal equipment and even less recording expertise. However, the studio’s ability to capture the essence of these bands on a budget the bands could afford catapulted the studio into prominence in the local scene.
“At that time [Front Street] still rented to bands,” said John Shough, house engineer at Cro-Mag, 1990-2003. “There were bands all over the place. Mainly it was hard-edged punk. There were some lighter type things, but the whole scene was very kitsch for the punkers to come down to [the] warehouse, with the graffiti and the skateboarding. The whole thing was just cool.”
Live shows thrown in the Front Street warehouses were stifled relatively quickly. Shows had been thrown out at Brookwood Hall, a cement-block rental hall near Vandalia, since the late ‘80s and it continued to serve as a venue well into the ‘90s. Gross and McDermott, however, devised another opportunity that galvanized the underground community.
“The first show we did at Springfield Street [in 1991], there was no flyer,” said Gross. “I don’t think I really called anyone. I mean, it was all in passing. I might mention it to someone, and there were 200 people there.”
“At Springfield Street it was good sound, a stage, and a really underground room, but it was still a rock show,” said McDermott. “I mean, it wasn’t like playing in someone’s garage. It was just in a very underground location.”
Essentially a nondescript meat locker, Newspace at Springfield Street served as a crucible for the developing scene. Bands like The Method, Fathom Theory, Cigarhead and Brainiac all performed in front of hundreds of people, opening for bands like Fugazi, Green Day and Shudder to Think.
As the local bands flourished, Trader Vic’s continued to serve as an outlet to distribute recordings and spread the word about upcoming shows. Around this time, Blankenship decided to invest in these young bands by establishing Simple Solutions Records to put out local releases. Issuing records by local favorites such as Scorched Earth Policy, The Method, Cage and others, Simple Solutions provided further support for the local bands by offering them help financing the expense of having their records pressed.
By the summer of 1991, the audiences for bands such as The Method and Scorched Earth Policy continued to swell and the bands sought new opportunities for performance. Although fiercely supportive of original music since its inception in 1981, Canal Street Tavern had largely been closed off to many of the heavier bands. However, in 1991, The Method won the annual Dayton Band Play-Offs and signaled a shift in the Dayton music scene.
“There were so many good bands in those days, but not a single club in town would let them play,” said Gross. “The Haunting Souls and The Method could never have played Canal Street in a million years until after The Method went in there and won his band play-offs. Then after that, the doors were kicked down.”
Although opportunities were expanding for some, years of indifference from the local scene led Northridge Elementary School teacher Robert Pollard and his rotating cast of characters known as Guided By Voices (GBV) to retreat from performance and set to work on a stream of home recordings that largely fell on deaf ears. While intended to be a farewell, the release of the album Propeller in 1992 instead served as the lift-off for GBV. The album found its way into the hands of underground notables Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Scat Records’ Robert Griffin. The subsequent hype that surrounded the band, their lo-fi aesthetic, and their affiliation with Dayton, compounded by the deluge of releases during 1992 to 1993, catapulted GBV into indie rock icon status.
While Newspace at Springfield Street demonstrated that large audiences were eager for the caliber of shows thrown by Network, the operation was subsequently shut down and Gross and McDermott, along with Frank McGuire, retooled and relocated. Initially, they opened Network on North Main Street in the Santa Clara neighborhood, later moving operations to what is presently the drum room at Hauer Music on Patterson Boulevard.
“Citywide Development Corporation walked in the door at the record store on Main Street and said ‘We’d love to have you downtown!’” said Gross. “We had one meeting when we walked through Hauer Music where Dean Lovelace and Rhine McLin were there and were trying to get us to move downtown.”
In addition to Network hosting shows at their new location downtown, other small promoters were continuing to host shows out at Brookwood Hall. Shows being thrown by promoters Rebos and Starfisher offered additional opportunities for bands. In 1992, Network threw their first More Than Music Festival at Brookwood Hall, featuring more than 20 bands over two days. While largely a punk/ hardcore engagement, the festival drew hundreds of people from the tri-state area, further suggesting that it could happen here.
A year after The Method’s victory in the Dayton Band Play-Offs, another band rose up through the ranks of Network’s favorites. Brainiac elevated itself amongst its peers with its retro-futuristic deployment of squibs and squiggles from their vintage Moog synths, layering them on top of angular dance rhythms and grinding punk intensity. In addition, the charismatic Tim Taylor exuded a star quality that those around him found undeniable.
“He acted so crazy on stage, spastic and whatever,” said Blankenship. “I was convinced that he would definitely make it.”
Brainiac won the Dayton Band Play-Offs in 1992 and quickly followed with a pair of split-singles that established the band as top dog amongst the younger bands. Within a year’s time, the band released their debut album, Smack Bunny Baby. Put out by New York label Grass Records, Brainiac was the first band from the Dayton underground scene to ascend to such heights. It was the homecoming of an expatriate, however, that would build on the underground successes of GBV and Brainiac, and further focus national attention on the Gem City.
Having served as bassist for the seminal band The Pixies, and recording the album Pod and the EP Safari with her own band, The Breeders, Kim Deal returned to Dayton in 1992 and, with her sister Kelley, and drummer Jim MacPherson, began work on what would become one of most successful albums of the 1990s.
“In late 1992, I think it was Nick [Kizirnis of The Obvious and Cage] that referred Kim Deal to the studio,” said John Shough, house engineer at Cro-Mag from 1990 through 2003. “Therein, Kim’s in town, [in early 1993] The Pixies broke up, and she’s asking ‘Where can we practice? Where can we do a little writing, a little rough demo work? Where’s a good place?’ Joe was doing them down there and they were basically just writing … what was to be Last Splash.”
As the preliminary work on the next Breeders record commenced and the band made a handful of discreet appearances at Canal Street Tavern, various bands in the scene started to come around. Cro-Mag became a hub of activity and bands were constantly talking and getting ideas from one another. It was during the demo sessions for Last Splash that The Breeders and GBV began hanging out at Cro-Mag.
“If you take Cro-Mag out of the picture,” said Shough, “Kim [Deal] probably stays living in Dayton, but she probably goes somewhere else to do the demos [for what became Last Splash], so then you don’t have all this local buzz. You don’t have this clubhouse where GBV and The Breeders meet. Everything’s smaller.”
With the increased visibility of Dayton bands both on the national and local levels, media opportunities arose that offered bands increased exposure. By late 1993, the Dayton Voice, started by Marriane McMullen and Jeff Epton, increased coverage of local music. Over at the Miami Valley Cable Council, Andy Valeri and his Groovy Cosmic Love Hour hosted live performances by local bands. Likewise, Dennis Mutter launched a weekly video program, Alternative Edge, around this time, which showcased underground videos from national, as well as local, bands.
By the end of 1993, The Breeders’ “Cannonball” was a Top Ten single. GBV garnered endless critical acclaim. Brainiac was rubbing shoulders and touring with underground notables The Jesus Lizard and Girls vs. Boys. The social hubs of Trader Vic’s, Network and Cro-Mag provided bands in Dayton with opportunities to reach a wider audience, to build momentum off of one another’s shows, and to network with the national touring bands being brought through by promoters. With all interest in what was happening in Dayton growing as a result of the successes of The Breeders, GBV and Brainiac, and the music industry scrambling to capitalize on the polar shift toward Seattle, the stage was set for a phenomenon that no one expected to happen in Dayton…
Thanks to Dennis Mutter, Steven Gullett, Robert Shroyer and Darryl Robbin for providing archival imagery used in this piece. Part II of “Shocker in Gloomtown” will appear in the Nov. 1 edition of the DCP.
Reach DCP Music Editor Kyle Melton at MusicEditor@DaytonCityPaper.com and read his blog at thebuddhaden.net.