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The Big Fish Files

Can you really make it in Boise?


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Imagine, for a moment, that you wake up one day in Boise, Idaho, and discover you have musical talent. When you place your fingers on a guitar fretboard and touch the strings—or whack a bass, or smack a drum—the resulting sound is exactly what you thought it would be. You hear a little melody or a riff in your head and discover that you're able to translate it onto a piece of paper and hum it in a way that sounds, even if not exactly great, at least pretty freaking good. Maybe, just maybe, you rock.

So ... what now? You play. You round up your most musical friends--or maybe you just befriend some musicians--perform on a tiny stage and hope no one is watching. The world doesn't end. Then you play your 20th show, opening for a national touring act. You self-release an album. By now, not only do you hope people are watching, you expect them to be listening--and maybe buying a T-shirt on the way out. After all, even though you're only the opener, at least a few of them are probably here just to see you, right?

A year later, you're still in Boise making a meager but encouraging amount of money playing music--not enough to justify playing full-time, but enough to give you a tantalizing glimpse of what that would be like. You're playing a lot of shows. You start to wonder: Is this a hobby or a job? You compare yourself to where your musical heroes were at your age. Are you like them? Do you really want to be? How do you know if you're any good? Are you losing your mind? Slowly it dawns on you: You're a big fish. Or if you're not yet a big fish, you're well on your way. And this quiet but supportive town just might be your proverbial small pond.

While this article is about musicians, it's written by a music fan. More specifically, it's by a fan who can say that 90 percent of the concerts he has attended during his life have been within 10 miles of where he was born. As that special kind of fan, I feel qualified to tell the actual rock musicians out there: Your fans in Boise, Nampa and Caldwell worry about this moment.

They worry that you'll leave them, seeking big audiences and contracts in Portland or New York. (In many abandonment dreams, those are the two most likely places. Seattle has ranked third in the last decade.) The fans want you to succeed, to sell records, to do interviews with Pitchfork and Rolling Stone and show the world that it's not just methamphetamine addicts, fundamentalists and John Birch Society members who live in Idaho. They worry that your lives and loves and college loans will catch up with you, and your band and its cool name will just fizzle out.

In other words, they want you to make it. As in, make a living. As in, "These guys rock. I sure do hope they make it." From a fan's perspective, making it means making it big--or at least, big enough to keep putting out a record every three years and playing at least one local concert a year until ... well, until they're done liking you. It means withstanding all of the metaphorical Yoko Onos life throws at you. Audience members have watched plenty of you go the way of the Beatles, but with far less fanfare. They've been to those inspiring shows early in your careers. They've also been at ones like the Speed of Shark show Doug Martsch, from Built to Spill, recalls.

"I loved their record," Martsch told me recently, "and then I went to go see them play, and they said that was their last show. Right when I discovered them. That was kind of a drag."

It is a drag that Speed of Shark didn't make it, as it was for far too many other promising local groups to mention. So, in the interest of making Boise a better, happier place in which to play, live and be entertained, BW is devoting this year's Music Issue to four deep psychological dissections recently performed on musicians at very different stages of their careers. The only characteristic they all share is that they've been in active bands--i.e., performing regularly and releasing albums--in or around Boise for the last few years. I asked them questions that should have been asked by a therapist, or perhaps a parent. I plumbed their psyches in order to ascertain what makes good musicians stay in Boise and what makes them leave. I asked where they're planning to go, and how they'll know when they've made it there. The musicians have played a wide range of styles at different levels of amplification to very different-smelling crowds, but they share a common characteristic: They've played for us a bunch of times.


Martsch still remembers the first show he played in Boise--sort of. He's sure it took place in 1986 or 1987, and it was "one of those punk-rock shows in [a rented hall]." While the band's name, Farm Days, isn't on the tip of many tongues anymore, the lineup is familiar to any Built to Spill fan: On bass was Brett Nelson, Built to Spill's bassist still, and Andy Capps drummed, as he later did on BTS's breakthrough 1994 record There's Nothing Wrong With Love. On that first night, Martsch sang into a microphone taped to the top of a vacuum cleaner. It was an appropriate metaphor, given what he says was his career ambition at the time.

"I just assumed that I'd have to be a janitor or a bartender to pay the bills, and play music for fun," he recalls. "The kind of music I make, and the way I go about it, I had no aspirations to make a living of it. I never even thought [music] was a career."

In fact, Martsch did work as a janitor in Boise back then, even while he was playing in what music writers now perennially call a "legendary" band, the Treepeople. To young fans, who were barely of listening age and didn't have drivers licenses when the band was playing its early shows at the Crazy Horse, it felt like the Treepeople left Boise as soon as they realized how good they were. Martsch says drummer Wayne Rhino Flower first brought up the idea of moving to Seattle. The band included Pat Brown on bass, and Martsch and Scott Schmaljohn on vocals and acting as the two-headed guitar hydra that powered the band's characteristic sound: A noisy, layered take on the three-minute punk-song formula.

"Anyone who grows up in Boise can relate to the idea that once you get to a certain age, you want to try some other town," he says. "We didn't think we were going to 'make it' or anything. I thought it'd be fun, but if anything, it was going to be like starting all over at the bottom again, and we'd be competing with other bands to get shows ... [But] we felt like we were having a good time, so we were like, 'Oh, yeah, that sounds great.'"

Oddly enough, the band's first show in Washington was opening for someone from Boise: Tad Doyle, a former butcher and lumberjack whose immensely heavy new Seattle band, Tad, was one of the first to sign with fledgling Sub Pop Records in the late 80s. But a much smaller house-show really stands out in Martsch's memory from their early days in Seattle as the moment when he and his fellow Idaho boys started to find what most bands would probably leave Boise in search of: industry connections.

"We played a house party in Bremerton (a port town across Puget Sound from Seattle), and there were all these kind of straight-edge punk rock kids, 50 or 60 of them, and they were actually singing along to the words on our demo tape," Martsch says. "That was a big thing. They were really involved in putting on shows, so we ended up getting a lot of them. We played in a few different scenes, with punk rock bands and hardcore bands, and through that, we all made certain connections."

One such link was to the late Chris Takino, an employee at Sub Pop who helped the Treepeople get prestigious opening spots for bands like Dinosaur Jr, and who managed the Treepeople briefly. Just as importantly, Takino split off from Sub Pop and formed his own label, Up Records, to release Built to Spill's There's Nothing Wrong With Love. This record, Martsch says, was the one that "someone at a big record company liked enough to sign us."

But by the time Warner Brothers came calling, Martsch was back in Boise. After releasing two EPs and three LPs of dense, churning guitar jams for the Seattle-based labels Toxic Shock and C/Z records, the Treepeople puttered out in a way that to this day, Martsch describes as "really weird." The drummer joined another band. The bassist was having a kid. Some record industry "sleazebag" started some bad blood in the ranks, and "the whole thing just kind of imploded."

Martsch's overlapping online biographies provide different accounts of what exactly brought the guitarist back to Boise in 1992. But whether he was tired of touring, tired of Seattle or, as the All Music Guide asserts, he just needed to "refresh himself"--he said recently he was just following his girlfriend to college--Martsch moved back and almost immediately commenced making new music with those same old Boise guys and producing it through his Seattle connections.

The rest can be read about in any number of articles in Boise Weekly, the Idaho Statesman, Rolling Stone or on approximately 67,300 Web sites. On the Warner Brothers label, BTS produced five acclaimed albums, and Martsch released one solo. While the guitarist is quick to admit that none of that may have happened without the Treepeople's doomed jaunt to Seattle, he adds that he really did get the big city out of his system.

"I'm pretty happy here," Martsch says. "I thought I might end up in a city, but I definitely wasn't disappointed when I didn't. Now, I'm really a homebody."

With the modesty that characterizes most of his interviews, Martsch says he hasn't ever given any thought to the big-fish-small-pond scenario. Music is just one part of his life, he says. Sure, he keeps track of how much money he makes, and he goes on tour to keep from getting bored in Boise, but his music "has never been about striving for something that's out of reach." Then again, he admits, "It's probably easy for me to say that, because I'm actually getting paid."

If Martsch were in what he labels a "city," it probably wouldn't be so easy to play the kind of show he did two weeks ago at Neurolux: 24 hours notice, no fanfare, no backup, no setlist. "I was really just noodling around," he says. "People are supposed to drink and talk to each other while I'm noodling in the background. It's not supposed to be paid attention to."

This is perhaps a lesser-recognized advantage of making it in Boise: Here, a musician who sells out Irving Plaza in New York can blend in as background noise when he wants to. And sometimes, he does.


I put it to Rebecca Scott bluntly: "How many times do you think you've played in Boise?"

"Total?" she asks. I nod, and her answer is quick: "Oh, thousands."

Between the years 1994 and 2001, this self-described "short-haired hippie-chick singer girl" says she played at least five shows a week here, sometimes more. Adding in the last six years, she's already played in Boise more times than most people will probably ever listen to their favorite album.

I ask her how she didn't go crazy. She shrugs. Just keep the concerts loose, she says. Don't bother with setlists. Mix in lots of Shawn Colvin and James Taylor covers and don't be afraid to try formative new material. No big deal.

This 35-year-old singer-songwriter has slowed down her pace in recent years after getting "a little tired" back around the millennium. These days, she says, she plays "only as much as I can." Her interpretation of that statement, as evidenced by her concert schedule, is eight local shows over the next month, including one night, April 19, when she'll open for the Cowboy Junkies at the Egyptian Theatre at 8 p.m. before playing at Tom Grainey's at 9:30.

Perhaps it goes without saying, then, that whatever that homey, supportive-yet-stimulating feeling is that musicians wander the countless honkytonks and house shows in search of, Scott has found in Boise. She got her roaming fix out of the way in her childhood, she says, when her family moved around the country extensively. So when she moved here from Portland, Maine, and took her small songbook to an open mic night at Pengilly's saloon in 1992, she was looking to make roots.

"It happened right away: I felt like I found my niche here," Scott recalls of her first performance. She had previously only worked as a backup singer, but when local musicians began lobbying for spots in her band, she says, "I knew what I wanted to be doing, what I wanted to be pursuing. It didn't feel like it was going to be a job at that point."

Back then, she looked up to local working bands like Hoi Polloi and Black Diamond--"energy bands" that played a lot of shows, plenty of covers, and who could always be counted on to provide soundtracks to sweaty summer congregations like the Hyde Park Street Fair or Alive After Five. Perhaps it's also not surprising, then, that after 15 years in Boise, Scott is more comfortable with the labels "big fish" or "local institution" than were any of the other musicians interviewed for this article. It's a great label, she says. Nothing to be afraid of. She's worked hard, played every stage in town, most of them multiple times, and it feels good to hear those terms--just like it's rewarding in its own strange way when, once a week or so, some audience member asks her something along the lines of, "Why haven't you made it big?"

Billboard Music Group also prompted that question when, back in 1999, it named Scott's band, the Rebecca Scott Decision, one of the six best unsigned bands in the country after the release of the second of her four albums, United. The short answer, she says, is just that she's always been too damn busy to worry about some abstract idea like "making it." And besides, she's married and has a 15-year-old stepson with her female spouse. She has a day job, and so does everyone else in her band. She likes being the go-to musician for anyone in town looking to have music at a benefit, a festival ... pretty much whatever. Now, she says, "Whatever it is, I want to do it from here."

"Look, if Sheryl Crow calls me tomorrow and says, 'I love your stuff, come on tour with me,' I'm obviously going to say yes," Scott says. "But Boise has completely supported me all the time. There's a huge amount of comfort playing in your hometown. And we're in this weird space where we've played the Morrison Center, we've played all these great venues here, so it would be weird to go out of town just to play in a bunch of bars. Why would we do that when we've got plenty of work here right now?"


I have to admit: I hoped Clock would make it. They were a four-piece local band that opened for a few of the national touring acts at the Neurolux around the turn of the century. Their music was a style of meandering jazz-punk that was a little like Primus and a little like The Who. It had good solos, decent vocals and at every show, the guitarist and the bass player did a cool maneuver on stage halfway through the set, when they would switch instruments. I couldn't understand any of the lyrics, but that didn't matter. They were one of the few opening bands I looked forward to seeing.

Then, in 2004, Clock just kind of stopped playing. Their albums are still available on iTunes, but they sounded better live. Their page says they're "on hiatus" because half the band moved to Oregon, and they could come back at any time. But after a few months of no shows, I resigned myself to the idea that this band had definitely not made it.

Levi Cecil was the only member of Clock I knew personally. He played the bass and guitar and released the band's three albums on a little record label he founded, Emeritus Records. He was also the drummer in the Wham Bam Thank You Band (who, with that name, I assumed would not make it). After Clock croaked, Cecil played guitar in another three-piece group, called You Might Die, that played a few house shows and an opening slot at the Neurolux in 2004. I wrote a small article about them early in 2004, but in hindsight, I feel I may have overemphasized that You Might Die was a band featuring that guy from Clock. No matter. Within months, You Might Die was also kaput, and Cecil moved to Portland for what he now says was "a change of pace." He played for a while in a band called System and Station, and now he's in two more, Deep North and Heroes and Villains.

Cecil is hardly the first Boise musician to make that specific change of geography. (Remember Central Boise Library from a few years back? They're in Portland now with a different rhythm section performing as "Central City Music Company," but their new first album is called Central Boise Library.) However, Levi is insistent: "I didn't consciously move to Boise or Portland thinking, 'I'm going to move there and play music and be successful.'" Everyone in Portland is trying to make it, he says, so it's no big deal.

"Here, every schmuck on the corner is just like me," Cecil says. "Everyone is in numerous bands, running a label, out on tour, writing books, making movies--and nobody gives a shit what you're doing." He means that in a good way. He even says it's comforting.

"It's a dream place for a bum musician-type," he says of the town. "There are so many resources for everyone. There are like 30 or 40 venues, and you can get a show at any of them. Maybe two-thirds of the shows here are local bands. They play all the time." And as for the lifestyle, "It's easy to live here. You can be a cab driver and work three days a week, or be a barista, and make music on the side. It's better pure economics."

Cecil, who grew up in Idaho Falls and moved to Boise in 1998 prior to starting Clock with his high-school friends, says he still feels like time might be running out on his music ambitions, so to speak.

"I told my parents that I would pursue this until I was 30, and if I wasn't making a decent living at it by then, I would start to pursue something else," he says. They've always been in support of his musical leanings, he says. His grandma even gave him money to release a 7-inch record when he was in high school. Now 27 years old, Cecil is driving a cab in Portland when he's not touring with Heroes and Villains. The band is taking the summer off so "the main guy can write new material." But, Cecil says, he will spend the time "re-evaluating."

"I had this dream of being like Ian MacKaye [founder of Washington, D.C.'s Dischord Records and the bands Fugazi and Minor Threat]," he says. "I'd run my own label, make my living off of doing my own thing with zero outside input. But my label wasn't really a label. I didn't put any money in it. I basically started it so that Clock could put out CDs because I knew no one else would release our music. But if you really want to start a record label, you've got to sell records. If you're a farmer, you've got to sell crops." Maybe now he'll go to school, he says. Maybe he'll start a label doing vinyl re-issues of old albums. But whatever it ends up being, he adds, it probably won't lead him back to Boise.

"Boise is very comforting. It was easy to live there and just relax," he says. "I felt like so many people had a shitload of talent, but no drive to make it a bigger thing. I loved living in Boise, and I still consider it my home in a lot of senses, but I also can't stand just chilling all the time. I've got to move."


Kris Doty's case is a combination of the other three, but interviewing her is a little wilder. She's the only one of the four who admits that her musical ambitions are her absolute, no-fooling, number-one priority. Music, she says, determines how she organizes her life now and imagines her future--"to a fault." She's going to make it or break it. No backup plan. Burn out or fade away. All that stuff.

"It's just who I am," the 28-year-old singer and songwriter says over a croissant. "I want to play with the great musicians in the world ... and be one. There's a light about those people. Something about them is contagious. Once you experience it, you don't want to experience anything less."

Like Martsch and Cecil, Doty grew up in a small Idaho town where her first performance was about as austere as live music gets: She was playing on the street at age 15, or more specifically, playing standup bass in a Christian folk group in front of an antique store in Nampa. Once out of high school, she left Boise for Portland to play the same instrument full time in a nationally touring folk group, Five O'Clock People. Back then, she was sure she would never return to Idaho. She says she would never, ever come back. While living what she calls "a trucker's life" during the band's repeated tours of the East Coast and the Deep South, Doty found plenty of time and space to practice her own material. "Christian rock promoters like to give the girl a room to herself (on tour)," she says with a smile. "I'd borrow someone's guitar after our shows and take it into my room, because I had this feeling that I had to do this. I had to get something out of me."

The fruits of her musical exorcism didn't inspire Doty's bandmates, who rejected her songs as "kind of 'Idaho," "a little weird" and "not really our thing." But after the People went on a six-month hiatus that has lasted six years, Doty began unveiling her songs at open mic-nights in Portland, then at small shows in Boise after she moved back in 2001 in order to "get my financial feet under me." Boise Weekly published a feature on Doty after her first show. She found another show, and soon had more shows than material with which to fill them.

"I've done that a lot of times," she says. "I wasn't done with my CD when I set the release date. It's a bad habit, but it works for me. I know peole who have 80 songs and are afraid to perform them. Me, I'm like, 'I've got a song. I've got to show people.' But Boise is a safe place to explore and try those new things out. It's very comfortable." There's that word again. The consensus among these musicians is that to play in Boise, as to live here, is to commit to a life of comfort. Where they differ is whether comfort is actually their goal.

"It's so calm here," Doty says. "You don't even have to think as you drive around: 'Should I turn? Was I supposed to go over that bridge? Oh, shit!' Here, when you jaywalk, the cars will stop and wave you across. You can't be unaware like that in a city. It changes how engaged you are with life."

Getting shows hasn't been a problem, either. Currently, she plays a Rebecca Scott-style Monday night bar show, at least two sets' worth, at Tom Grainey's. She opens for nearly every touring band on a large independent label that doesn't fit cleanly into a genre, from Devotchka to Dead Meadow to Edith Frost and even a recent reunion show of Martsch's Built to Spill side-project, The Halo Benders. If you have brunch and a mimosa at Red Feather Lounge on Sunday morning, Doty will usually be there, serenading diners from the corner. Ditto for a bourbon at Pengilly's on any Thursday night. In any other town, she says she might not have been able to find such opportunities. And yet, she adds those three little words so scary to local music fans: "The next step."

"What's the next step? I don't know," she says. "But it is liberating to play for new faces. It's a reality check. When I have gotten to tour, it takes people a little while to 'get it.' It's a challenge. I like that. In Boise, people get more excited about the cover songs than if I play a new song."

Doty says she doesn't feel like a big fish in a small pond. But she hates that label, and doesn't want to get to that point.

"It sounds like there's something bigger out there," she says. "If there is, I have to swim in it." And that point of no return choice--Should she sink her money and time into a national tour? Move to another town? Play a thousand more shows in Boise?--is where Doty says she is stuck. She's got the working-band ethic of Scott, with the "Gonna be a big star some day" ambition of the character in that old Bad Company song. But Doty also has a band that she has spent five years assembling, which includes BTS alum John McMahon on bass and cello, Ian Waters on guitar and Doty's former Boise State English professor, Louie Simon, on drums. That, she says, changes everything.

"Sometimes I think of Portland or New York. Maybe California. But then I think I should also just tour from here, because in order to have a whole band move, you have to give them some kind of elaborate plan, some kind of guarantee," she says. It's not like they're 18-year-olds who don't care if they eat or not that day, like I was the first time I went on the road."

Sometimes it feels like the Northwest grunge and indie-rock gold rush of the 1990s rolled right past Boise, like so many sugar beet trucks. During the golden age of independent, regional-minded labels like Sub Pop and Up and K records, we didn't have a local independent label that could act as a step to regional and national marketability. The most widely voiced concerns about the music scene back when Nevermind was released, like the lack of enough venues, or a too-narrow range of music, are the same ones we have on Nevermind's 16th anniversary. And some of our most promising musical talents grow out of Boise before they can help be the answers to those other problems.

On the other hand, the singular link in these interviews was that the artists--even the ones who left--said they wouldn't have been able to nurture their talents with such uncanny freedom and intimacy in any other market. That's the upside of comfort. Here, according to Allen Ireland, the owner of Boise's big fish hatchery, the Neurolux, the biggest step in getting a show is simply "going to the bar, meeting people there and showing that you support the other bands." Here, singers like Doty and Scott can have revelatory first shows that leave them with visions of their future careers. And Clock, Speed of Shark, Caustic Resin and countless other great bands of unknown status can be confident they'll be missed after their last gasp--or welcomed back when they're in the mood for a one-time reunion. Boise isn't a hothouse like Portland or Seattle, but the consensus is that it's a nursery nonpareil.

In other words, even if you can't necessarily make it in Boise, Boise can be whatever you make it.


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