Doin’ it yourself in the PNW
The Pacific Northwest can be a frightening, perilous place for a doe-eyed young Californian transplant like myself. Biting cold rain and wind, vast eerie forests swathed in hanging neon mosses, skyrocketing out-of-state tuition rates, and psilocybin mushrooms growing out of cracks in the sidewalk were all waiting for me when I first stumbled upstairs to our friendly neighbors in Oregon. Trying my best to navigate a cultural maze of Greek life, crusty train pirates and underage stoners, I finally discovered a thriving underground music scene worth sticking around for. Having since been thoroughly caked head to toe in mud, dried liquor, and other people’s sweat, I’ve come to see how the musical community of Eugene, Oregon and the greater Pacific Northwest can serve as an example for how a successful live scene can function independent of the standard promoter and club models that many artists rely on these days. The following is my story of answering a craigslist housing ad and subsequently finding myself deeply entrenched in a boisterous psychedelic forest fire of a scene.
Moving in and getting to work
I first came to the hallowed halls of the place they call The Campbell Club as a green young man, barely nineteen years old, new in town and looking for natural herbal supplements- boasting a referral from a friend who assured me that “someone there’s always got the plug.” I showed up unannounced, walked in the front door, introduced myself and was generously supplied with what I came there for in seconds. Despite finding some other local providers and not returning to the Club for the rest of the year, I passed by the massive, three-story retired sorority house many times on my way to school. I would always see the advertisements for house shows hanging above the front porch, where a motley and diverse crew of residents and friends would be smoking cigarettes and playing instruments on the house’s wide front porch at all hours of day and night. However, I didn’t actually became part of the scene until the next year. My return to the Campbell Club was prompted by fraught personal circumstances that dictated that I secure a place to live to attend school in Eugene for the fall of 2018 with only a few weeks left in August of that year. The deepest annals of the craigslist housing section were proving unfruitful until I stumbled upon an ad for a room with an image of the immediately recognizable beat up, 3-story brick facade. After applying for membership and being accepted within a week, I was welcomed warmly by my future housemates and friends and spent my first night in the Campbell Club sleeping on a foam mattress cover on the hardwood floor of my new room with my jacket as a pillow. Despite my back pain and vicious hangover the following day, I was thrilled to be living in my new home.
The Campbell Club functions as Student Co-Operative housing for Lane County residents- meaning if you don’t pull your weight in maintaining and improving the community and home of the 20-odd other people you live with, you’re liable to get voted out in a house meeting and kicked to the curb like Survivor (replace Jeff Probst and luau torches with a large, brightly painted living room full of angry anarchists). Fortunately, I had some talents hidden up my baggy hoodie sleeves which I was ready to employ. Within a short while I began hand drawing fliers for all our weekly house shows for our house members to post up all over Eugene like a crazed army of Shepard Faireys. Later on, I began helping out with mixing and sound for a number of the Campbell Club shows and ended up unofficially taking on responsibility for a lot of show related tasks when others were too busy. This did not include booking, which had been predetermined almost a year in advance due to the curiously high demand for playing at our house displayed by both local and touring bands. While running live sound equipment can be a little overwhelming at first for someone with barely any live music experience outside of sneaking behind the DJ booth at DNA lounge back in San Francisco, I caught on quick and Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (word to Kubrick). It helped quite a bit that the alternative to this type of work was cleaning out the lavatories, which at the time resembled a Chernobyl locker room. The other crucial motivator was the incredibly knowledgeable and helpful community that thrives in a co-operative living situation – there’s no way that I’d have been able to do these things without the metric tons of guidance and support that were kicked down to me by my passionate and capable fellow Co-opers. I quickly learned that I was but one small cog in our large and greasy but well-oiled machine.
My experiences in the field and my tales from the shits
My good friend Everest, a Campbell Club veteran resident and music technology student (who moonlights as a lysergic fairy grunge queen in waiting), showed me the ropes on the soundboard before they moved out. One of their main pieces of advice to me was that when it came to doing sound for punk bands, it was best to just turn everything up as loud as possible and just pretend to fiddle with some knobs if the band ever yelled at you from the stage. This is more labor intensive than it sounds because some punk bands love nothing more than yelling at the sound guy between every minute-and-a-half-long song. However, I’ve learned that in getting them to turn their amps down so the mic speakers can be heard then you can actually do some audible EQ and FX adjustments- ideally keeping both the audience and artists happy. Granted, this seemingly simple task was often like trying to get a junkie to take a shower. It was only recently that I got my first real compliment on my mixing work- on a 5 band punk show no less. So the real lesson for me was that maybe anything can be worked out with a slick tongue and some bribery, bar all other methods.
Fortunately for my eardrums and fans of other genres, punk bands are not the only bands the Campbell Club hosts by any metric. It’s quite literally impossible to put your finger on one genre or word or feeling to describe the breadth of variety in music here in Eugene. At first, a lot of the bands seemingly blend together in a morass of high tempos, “midwest emo influences”, crunchy garage drums and charged hoarse vocals. However, upon looking closer, there are some distinct aesthetic and even generational divisions between different groups in our local DIY (Do It Yourself, or “underground”) community. The Campbell Club has been a venue as well as a community house in more or less the same form since the 70s or earlier, so it’s not unusual to host bands such as west coast underground staple Punisher or the Alder Street All Stars, a bluegrass band comprised of former Campbell Club members, who might have played on our stage many times over the last decade or so or have some other personal relation to the Co-Ops. Through the years, the house has become a hub for the vibrant indie, punk and folk crowds that keep our shows populated, even in the summers when most students (and their wallets) are home for break.
However, the town of Eugene, or at least its Northeast corner, is largely dominated by the viral Gen Y hive that is the University of Oregon. So at your average show during the academic year you could easily see an 80 year old former black panther bumming a cigarette off a Mac Demarco doppelganger with cuffed khakis who just played a full set of indie lounge rock complete with a Smash Mouth cover as an encore. As one could imagine these vastly different types of acts and their requisite audiences sometimes won’t synergize super well on the same bill, and I’ve noticed that naturally our affiliated Co-Operative house The Lorax Manner, which is just across an alley next door from us, usually will organize younger jazz/indie/hip-hop lineups while the Campbell Club hosts everything from Folk to Punk to Funk to Ska with a generally older audience of locals and working adults rather than college kids trying to SnapCash us a cover charge.
This isn’t to say that there’s no overlap – we see lots of the same bands come back and play multiple times in a year at both houses, as we’re connected though the same organization (visit eugenesca.com for more information on Student Co-Operative living in Eugene). One week we might have a lo-fi hip hop show, followed by a metal night two weeks later and finally a folk punk night to finish the month off. And given our location across the street from the U of O, we usually draw a large portion of our audience from our student regulars or random drunk kids that wander by and walk in curiously. In the interest of keeping in our house’s long-standing traditions of activism and social justice values, we make it a priority to facilitate a safe space for people of all backgrounds who might stumble through our doors, and this necessitates us having a coordinated security force staffed by house members and volunteers to make sure everyone has a good time and nobody feels oppressed or discriminated against while enjoying the music, one of the few things that can bring us all together under one roof raving. In short, if you’re young or old, no matter where you come from or who you are, if your tastes include any genre of music invented in the last half century, you’ll be in luck in Eugene.
Living and Learning Everyday (I Feel Like Caillou)
While I’ve plunged headfirst into this deeply storied and complex culture in just a short 9 month span over the past academic year, I still have lots to learn and I’ve fucked up more than my fair share of times. A good if seemingly frivolous mistake I’ve learned from recently came when I got caught up with schoolwork and my own budding artistic career and neglected to do my job and design and print flyers far enough in advance for shows as I’d promised. As one of my senior housemates in terms of experience both in the Co-Ops and in the DIY scene nationwide said nicely to me (paraphrased), “When you say you will do this shit, and the bands depend on you to do the shit, and the shit is not done and nobody comes to the show because of YOU, you have fucking LIED to these people and let them down and yes it is somewhat of a big deal.”
Sheesh, they’re just fliers, right? Can’t people just see the facebook events? Not when your audience are composed largely of people either not as active on social media or users that simply can’t be reached by the smothering algorithm sorcery of the Zuckerlord. Physical fliers are still immensely important in promoting our shows and make a tangible difference in attendance and profits. Also immensely important here is accountability. One might recall stories of band’s riders for venues including a bowl of only brown M&M’s, or a very specific guacamole recipe, simply in order to ensure that a venue that they’re traveling cross country to play at can be held accountable to provide for their more essential needs.
This includes being responsible for communicating with people that count on you to organize their events. I’ve had to turn my phone off while lounging on a SoCal beach with a beer in hand on my spring break because a certain local performer was blowing up my phone demanding an answer about booking dates after I’d lagged on responding to him decisively for weeks. We were genuinely booked up and didn’t know what to tell the guy, and it doesn’t excuse some of the very rude names he called me, but nevertheless his anger was somewhat justified. When representing a venue as a legitimate business, you’ve got to be on top of everything and give straight answers, including a “Sorry bud, your music is fucking wack anyways and we’re booked full, hit the showers” (or ideally, something phrased more amicably and professionally) if necessary.
For the Community, By the Community
Recently we hosted our first ever outside volunteer training for not just house friends but members of the greater Eugene community to come and help us run our shows. We had a very decent, if somewhat homogenous, punk-dude-in-spiked-denim-patch-vest heavy, turnout, but on the upside we were able to familiarize a good amount of people with the way we run things and we look forward to trying to expand our volunteer reach similarly to our fellow Eugene venue the WOW Hall, which is a nonprofit stage run entirely by volunteers that hosts larger label acts ranging from Deafheaven to Isaiah Rashad to Cashmere Cat.
The possibilities for what we can do to support the countless inspired artists chasing their musical dragons out here in these rain soaked pine forests are endless, and we’re always learning and improving on our methods as a house and as individuals. As with many things in real life, there’s no one particular lesson about DIY music you should take from my experience and writings here other than to support your local bands, always give your $5 at the door (or whatever you’ve got in your pockets – “C’mon, quarters? Weed? Stogies?”), dance your ass off, buy the merch, and maybe if you have the resources talk to your friends about starting a venue in your town. It can be intimidating and you very well may fail but it most definitely can be done and the benefits for your local scene can vastly outweigh the costs. We owe it to our forebears, the fallen soldier venues of Eugene who have paved the way for community-run music spaces before us (pour one out for The Boreal), to continue our own good work and continue to try and do better with every show.