Boston Calling: the city at the heart of America’s DIY renaissance

The east coast city has always had its share of influential bands, but today, more groups are taking the stage under their own steam
From Bad Brains to Cerebral Ballzy: why hardcore will never die

Sam Blum theGuardian.co.UK 1/3/15

Boston has always existed on the fringes of America’s cultural fabric. The American Revolution started there, it boasts one of the most robust intellectual communities in the world, it is the birthplace of Dunkin’ Donuts, and it has a turbulent racial history and divide. It’s a town of academic transients, middle-class families and the working-class Bostonian populace.

But Boston is also home to a tradition steeped in underground folklore that’s much louder, one forged on the head-banging energy of punk rock’s forebears: the city’s consistently booming independent punk, metal, hardcore, indie-rock and post-punk music scenes. The aging record collector and millennialmusicsnob should know about Boston heavyweights like Siege, Jerry’s Kidz and Amherst’s Dinosaur Jr – bands who, in eras defined by blaring guitars, booked their own tours and played shows before their like-minded disciples. The Boston scene, just like the influential hardcore punk of Reagan-era Washington DC or Seattle’s flannel-wearing grunge scene, embodied an actively rebellious ethic, and thus wore the anti-corporate Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mentality boldly on its sleeve.

And just as Seattle existed on the outskirts of America’s cultural landscape before grunge, today’s Boston and the greater northeast are home to an impressive cadre of boisterous and creative bands who champion the densely textured post-punk sounds of bands like Dinosaur Jr, Polvo and other 90s luminaries.

Currently, Boston’s scene is still very regional, with only a few bands like Krill and Speedy Ortiz having broken through nationally and internationally. Many more bands from the region – like Kal Marx, Grass is Green, Guerilla Toss, Fat History Month, Mean Creek, and Bent Shapes – aren’t much recognized outside of their home towns.

But will the scene that birthed these new bands ever get the widespread recognition it deserves? And what are the conditions that hamper the meteoric rise of bands born of punk roots and regional, DIY diktats in 2015?

“Regional sounds have lost usefulness because the concept of community has expanded so much,” says J Robbins, record producer and former guitarist and frontman of Washington DC post-punk band Jawbox.

Musical communities are born in the blogosphere and in subreddits now, just as they were born on college radio stations in the 1980s and 90s. Robbins expands on this notion by invoking his time as a young, guitar-toting, perpetually road-weary musician in the 90s. He reasons that “the geography (of musical scenes) felt much further apart and much more separate” 20 years ago, and that regional musical communities became cultural flashpoints out of necessity, because there wasn’t much else to facilitate connections between aspiring bands.

Now, as many point out, web communities are the defining rule, stipulating who connects with whom and when – the question of where is less important.

Boston’s scene, however, seems to function on a more localized level, where internet activity takes a back seat to more genuine, word-of-mouth interaction. As Matt Becker, guitarist of Boston band Pile, says, there’s a lot of history undergirding the momentum of area bands today

“Boston and Massachusetts in general already has an enormous legacy of influential underground music, whether it was 80s and 90s punk and hardcore or the scene that grew out of western Massachusetts in the mid 1980s that spawned one of the most significant and archetypal independent rock movements in contemporary history,” he says.

Expanding on this sentiment is Sadie Dupuis, the vocalist/guitarist behind Speedy Ortiz of Northampton, Massachusetts. She says that Boston is an ever-expanding playground of musical experimentation full of bold and “risk-taking” songwriters.

“There’s always new people moving there and moving away, which means new blood, new bands, and little to no regard for whatever’s hip outside of its boundaries,” she says.

Boston’s is a scene driven by a disregard for what’s hip – a hoisting of the punk ethos much like DC hardcore, but without an era-defining sound or emblematic figure like Kurt Cobain or Henry Rollins for the media to latch onto. There’s no obvious enemy like Ronald Reagan for the bands to focus on, and politics isn’t something the bands are singing about.

“Seldom are bands performing to rally around a cause or social idea. Nascent protests are way more likely to gain traction via a hashtag than an impassioned band’s lyrics” in 2015, says Dupuis.

“It’s harder to rally around a scene that’s fractioned and introspective. Small scenes that turn into national movements need a cause to attract passion and interest, and music isn’t really the distribution point for causes anymore.”

In 2015, Boston bands wear their influences on their sleeves. Their tunes harken back to a time when many of the musicians were in their youths, when the guitar came first and bands with loud drummers took precedence over all slow-burning, soft-rock sensibilities.

J Robbins of Jawbox reasons that it’s quite possible that nearly all musical stunts have been pulled in rock; there’s not much else for new bands to glean from the genre as a whole. Meanwhile, a national music scene over-saturated with bands makes it harder for regional scenes to get noticed on a national scale.

“There are so many bands now that the likelihood of being derivative is just so much higher,” he says, noting that being derivative isn’t, however, always a bad thing.

One has to ask, though: do upstart post-punk bands in Boston and elsewhere even care about putting their music on the map of American musical legacy towns?

Matt Becker doesn’t seem to think so, since he already sees his band as part of a longstanding citywide tradition of musical ingenuity. He says Boston has always prided “art for art’s sake” above all else.

He says “the (Boston) legacy exists and has proven itself intact with this new generation of bands”.

Independent bands play for themselves and strive to share their music in any way possible with people who genuinely care. The prospect of fame remains just that: a possibility that remains more of a passing joke than any real aspiration.

It’s evident that this new generation of post-punk revivalists champion the same anti-corporate ethic that drove bands that reached legendary status years ago. In 2015, though, there are certain deterrents that hamper new DIY bands’ chances to reach the mainstream. For one, consumers are more apathetic than ever. J Robbins notes that to the average, detached listener, “music is just sonic wallpaper” that changes with the push of a button or click of a mouse.

Boston might not be the epicenter of the next great American rock-and-roll explosion, but grungers in the Pacific Northwest of the early 90s (and certainly punks in 80s DC) never sought to change the world. A certain 90s post-punk revival in the northeastern US probably won’t reach the same level of notoriety, and that’s OK, because the bands are, for the most part, content with what they already have.

As Becker puts it: “We’re extremely lucky to be able to play to full rooms at home without a ton of show promotion. On a good night, there is very little differentiation between those making art and those enjoying it. We’re the same people.”

J Robbins echoes Becker’s sentiment, invoking his own musical prime. “It wasn’t about trying to burst on to the international consciousness of a generation and trying to take over the world. It was about making a utopia.”

As strange as it might seem, that utopia might actually exist – in Boston.

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