The Central Valley (Un)scene
Grandaddy, Earlimart, Panty Lions and more
The Central Valley movement isn't as talked about as Omaha's emo rock or New York City's garage scenes but artists like Grandaddy and Earlimart—hailing from California's backyard—are well known in critical circles. While these artists are mostly resistant to being pigeonholed, Earlimart's frontman, Aaron Espinoza, describes the sound coming out of places like Fresno and Modesto as "the sound of progress and standing still."
Historically speaking, the Central Valley's first movement started in the early ’50s with country artist Wynn Stewart but gained recognition through Merle Haggard and Buck Owens in the ’60s. A deviation from the more polished, poppy sound of Nashville, the Bakersfield scene introduced innovative lyrical compositions, pioneered a fresh-sounding honky tonk/rock 'n' roll hybrid, and popularized an electric guitar now synonymous with country music, the Fender Telecaster.
More than 30 years later, a new wave of bands has started cropping up along the Central Valley—Grandaddy, Earlimart, Fiver, Built Like Alaska, Panty Lions, Rodriguez, Sparklejet and Virgil Shaw, to name a few. Though styles vary from band to band, the primarily 30-something artists offer equally well-written lyrics while giving a nod to the region's alternative country roots. For many of them, there is a need to reconnect with the hometown heritage. While I talk with Espinoza, he proudly holds up a book he’s reading—My Name is Aram, by William Saroyan. Similar to the way Steinbeck captured the Salinas Valley, Saroyan wrote books about Fresno, California.
"Saroyan was synonymous with Fresno; where I grew up,” says Espinoza. “There were all these theaters named after him and statues. I think I used to rebel against the whole thing. Now I find myself picking up this book because I live in L.A., and reading this makes me feel like I'm going back to my roots in a way. Saroyan was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and was the first person to turn it down because he didn't believe in any competition among artists."
Ashod Simonian, guitarist for the Panty Lions and former member of Earlimart, echoed the movement's strong preference for collaboration, "When we're all in a room together, as we have been on several occasions,” he says, “we get along like old friends, which most of us are, just by circumstance—small towns, not a lot of music, nothing to do." In fact, it was this environment that evolved into one of the primary Central Valley recording studios, The Ship.
(Earlimart, pictured at top, L-R:Davey Latter, Solon Bixler, Ariana Murray, Aaron Espinoza
Simonian, Ariana Murray and Aaron Espinoza used to live in a large house in Silverlake, Calif., that resembled a factory on the inside, though its facade looked more like a shipwreck on top of a hill. It was there that the three collaborated on everything from writing to photography to cooking. As more artists from the Central Valley started moving into the house, living spaces were transformed into recording studios. Before long, The Ship would move to Eagle Rock, Calif. (just north of L.A.), where the current studio resides.
The Ship's reputation has always been to support artists from the Central Valley but the circle is widening, if not becoming noticeably decentralized. The studio eventually found itself working with bands outside of the Valley like Folk Implosion, Irving, Elliott Smith and The Breeders.
Espinoza says that neither he nor anyone else working at the studio attempts to create a deliberate sound. "Just because I'm producing someone else's album doesn't mean that I impose my agenda,” he says. “I try to work with the band or artist." In doing so, Espinoza is not reinforcing a certain sound but rather a manner of networking and making friends within the music industry. This might explain why critics and listeners are paying more attention to New York’s garage scene and Omaha's mostly emo-core/rock scene. There's nothing obvious to be seen here in Central Valley. It's all very discreet.
Simonian explains, "We spent thousands of hours drinking and talking and dreaming and playing and ripping each other off. Much of [the playing] now takes place in L.A. where many of us relocated and that's where Elliot [Smith] and others came in. The result of that is a sound that seems to be emerging, I agree, but I can't say we have any control over it at this point. We're just starting to get recognized as a collective unit. I like the idea of our studio being the foundation or home base for whatever is happening but that's not our goal. We're just here to support each other where needed and hopefully some cool stuff will happen along the way."
(Grandaddy, pictured at top)