Though it's less than an hour south of Seattle, when was the last time you checked out a band from Tacoma? T-Town has a reputation as Seattle's rougher, grittier cousin, reflected by the music made there—its long history of garage rock, with the Ventures, the (non-reggae) Wailers, and the Sonics all hailing from the "City of Destiny."
But there's more to Tacoma than garage. The city's hip-hop contingent is "perhaps the most creative and active element of Tacoma's overall music scene at the moment," says Matt Driscoll, editor at The Weekly Volcano, the city's alternative newspaper. [Since Driscoll was interviewed for this story, he's been hired as a staff writer by Seattle Weekly, and will start next week. —Ed.] And another crucial factor in the city's musical makeup is the presence of the School of the Arts, or SOTA, an arts-centered high school, located downtown, that's part of Tacoma's public-school system.
"Quite literally, SOTA is the incubator that drives our music scene. The list of great bands and musicians that have emerged from SOTA over the last few years is astounding," Driscoll says, citing bands like Makeup Monsters, Apache Chief, Red Hex, and Oberhofer. "Tacoma's music scene is one thousand times improved thanks to SOTA, which allows all these talented kids to come together and mingle and combine forces," he says. But "high-school kids can be a little flaky. Bands break up and things change a lot." He recommends keeping an eye on all-ages venues The Space and Tahoma Tea and Co. (formerly The Den) as good bets for seeing firsthand what's happening in the ever-changing rock scene.
All this flux can be hard on young bands trying to make it. Just ask Isaac Solverson, Shayne Weeks, and Jay Clancy of Makeup Monsters (the name may sound familiar—they were EMP Sound Off! finalists in 2009), three SOTA students whose jittery garage pop recalls Tom Verlaine fronting the Strokes with a hint of '60s-beach-bum sun. They've seen great bands like the Nightgowns break up and talented musicians and friends like Oberhofer and Widowspeak move in search of success in bigger markets like New York. "Tacoma has a lot of potential," says Clancy, the group's drummer. "I've always felt Tacoma is on the brink of something, but it's never exploded."
Though leaving the city is perceived as the only way to achieve success, he hopes their band can break the mold by growing a fan base across the Northwest. The one bright spot: Due in part to SOTA, there are always "younger bands taking the torch," says Weeks, who with Solverson plays guitar and sings in MM.
If constant transition plagues Tacoma's rock scene, the outlook's rosier for hip-hop. "There are a lot of hardworking people here who are passionate about music and have a strong sense of community," says Todd Sykes, who with EvergreenOne and DJ Hanibal makes up rising hip-hop group CityHall. "There are a lot of different styles and sounds representing every part of Tacoma. Overall, it's a really diverse scene with a lot of talent and a lot of creative people." To get a taste of it, he recommends catching a show at Hell's Kitchen or Jazzbones or hitting an open-mike night; look for names like Bruce Leroy, Second Family, or Chris Crazy and you won't be disappointed, he says.
All in all, says Driscoll, "I think most people unfamiliar with Tacoma would be surprised to find out how many truly top-notch young indie bands and artists are kicking around this place. Tacoma isn't just a metal, punk, and beer town anymore . . . though everyone still likes beer."
Here are some Tacoma bands and artists worthy of serious attention, suggested by Driscoll, Sykes, and Makeup Monsters:
Makeup Monsters: Check out the recently released Nervous Case EP for a glimpse of our tour guide's catchy, fuzzed-out progress.
CityHall: It's impossible to deny their relentless grind, says Driscoll, noting that their prolific output is always well-received. "I expect to see Sykes and EvergreenOne reach even bigger heights in 2012," he says.
Wheelies: "To be succinct, Wheelies deal in garage pop—great hooks and endearingly messy," says Driscoll. "It's almost impossible not to dig these guys."
The Fucking Eagles: "With connections to old-school Tacoma band Seaweed, the Fucking Eagles pretty much sound and act exactly like I think a band from Tacoma should," says Driscoll. "Fuzzed-out, '60s-inspired garage rock with a T-Town middle finger holding it up."
Girl Trouble: "Quite simply, I'd get kicked out of Tacoma if I failed to mention scene stalwarts Girl Trouble," says Driscoll. "Closing in on 30 years, these guys have repped Tacoma and been a huge part of what T-Town's music scene is every step of the way. Hit It or Quit It was the first full-length record released by Sub Pop. And, to this day, frontman KP Kendall still takes his shirt off at nearly every performance. That's dedication."
Not From Brooklyn: Driscoll calls this "easily one of Tacoma's most buzzworthy bands at the moment." Their electronica-inflected indie hits home with the all-ages crowd that's a core component of Tacoma's rock scene.
Red Hex: Jay Clancy describes their sound as "psych-punk-garage-grunge" and calls them "the badass punk rockers of Tacoma." He says, "Watching Red Hex, you're always waiting for someone to storm off the stage. They have an attitude that's edgy."
Bruce Leroy: This Tacoma MC released two EPs last year showcasing his gritty flow. "We definitely look up to him in our group," says Sykes. "He's a great MC, with good production and a great stage show."
Spencer Kelley: Kelley, of Basemint and Wallpaper, is one of the most talented musicians in Tacoma, according to Clancy. He's currently working on a solo album, and is definitely one to watch in 2012.