On Alum Rock Avenue, at the entrance to San Jose’s Eastside, a crowd packs a small graffiti-splattered room, watching rappers share a bluetooth mic and a solitary speaker. Across town, a crowd of young punks waits impatiently to enter an expanded rehearsal space for a sold-out hardcore show.
In Japantown, a group of friends have converted a basement space into a one-stop-shop for creative pursuits. Downtown, groups of professionals and families eat dinner while watching a full-sized jazz band play on stage.
Each of these snapshots provide a glimpse into the scattered, diverse and tenacious live music scene in the South Bay. While jazz continues to have a dedicated home downtown, the city’s DIY punk, hip hop and electronic scenes have all gone through a series of mutations lately. When you add in COVID lockdowns, accelerated gentrification, scene infighting and the cyclical winds of art, the city’s youth music scene has endless challenges finding a foothold in San Jose.
But, as always, a select few dreamers, hustlers, and musicians are attempting the implausible: finding a home for all-age music in San Jose.
REWIND THE SCENE
Take, for example, Playback Studios, off Monterey Highway.
Playback was founded in 2016 by musician Alex Pansoy and his former bandmate for the purpose of providing a dozen rehearsal spaces for bands in a single building. One of those spaces was big enough for live performances, which struck Pansoy as an opportunity.
“It was a point of contention between us at first, but it’s been a regular thing since,” he says.
The pair enlisted help from Chris Gough, another musician who recently formed promotion company Heavy Lemon. The three all knew each other from the local scene, and with their combined network of the bands, contacts and punk connections, Playback and Heavy Lemon formed a partnership.
“It was kind of a nice coincidence because my landlord offered me the upstairs space, and Chris was looking at the same time and he took it. And now we are running,” Pansoy told Metro in January.
Situated on 10th Street, deep in an industrial district and surviving off rehearsal space rentals and donations, Playback has been able to consistently offer all-ages shows to San Joseans. While the roster of bands tends toward punk and hardcore, there also are a number of genre-crossing acts.
“We try to make sure there is a little more variety,” Pansoy says.
Playback was all but unknown until a couple years later when it began to advertise on social media. Shows were originally held in the practice space’s tiled lobby, a small but serviceable room for a scene looking for literally anywhere. Since renovating its upstairs room, they’ve been quietly but steadily packing its 50-person capacity live space with impressive shows from up and coming acts like MSPaint, awakebutstillinbed and Militarie Gun.
“The hardcore scene has definitely blown up and San Jose has been a big part of that,” Pansoy says. “I like that it’s inclusive, and keeping rock and guitar music alive.”
Chris Gough grew up in Mountain View before moving to San Jose, where he’s lived ever since. A veteran of the local scene, he began booking shows under a variety of names, including Dutch Crunch DIY and Texas Toast DIY. The pandemic gave him time to think, rebrand and regroup. Once restrictions were lifted, he emerged under the banner of Heavy Lemon.
“I basically brought together a group of folks that do this kind of thing. They are always looking for a spot, and there’s venues that maybe don’t want to take this on, or don’t want a type of music because it’s low-turnout,” he says. Nevertheless, “there was still demand. So I got together with a bunch of folks and formed [this] booking collective for Playback Studios in South San Jose.”
The loosely run collective shares a calendar which it uses to book a variety of acts at many local venues, most often at Playback. There isn’t much money in it. They do it for the love of music and the hope of providing some kind of refuge for the area’s young people.
“I knew there would be a need for this,” Gough says, “It’s really integral for young people to have a place to go and see bands play.”
And while interest in San Jose music is picking up, the endless peaks and valleys of the local scene are always at the forefront of Gough’s mind. Having performed with many local bands himself, he can’t help but be pragmatic. He’s seen great venues come and go, and knows the work required to make a place last—namely a second revenue stream to underwrite the live music.
“You can’t depend upon shows alone to provide you with the revenue to keep spaces open. That struggle is very real and that’s the reason you see these spots pop up for six or eight months and disappear,” Gough says. “When I was growing up in the early ’00s there were a lot of places to see music. But as the area got more expensive, available commercial—and industrial spaces, too—dried up.”
Despite the unforgiving landscape, he’s not giving up. Like the other subjects of this story, his path is one carved by, and indebted to, music. Paying back means creating a safe and inclusive space for the expression of music he strives for.
“There’s a lot of obstacles created just by the nature of where we live. But people still persist and find a way to do it. I think that’s a beautiful thing and a beautiful part of San Jose that makes me want to stay here and give back so much of what it has given me.”
OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Like Heavy Lemon, Dullahan Productions was started out of necessity. Gareth Morris got the idea to start booking shows after years of playing in bands with a desire to get more involved in the scene.
Dullahan Productions started by releasing compilation records, mostly recordings of his friend’s bands. This gave him a roster of artists and people he could hit up for shows or future compilation albums.
“It kind of spiraled from there,” he recalls.
He started to book a variety of shows around the area, from all-ages events to 21+ shows at venues like the Ritz in downtown San Jose. Still, he was no stranger to the difficulties of pulling off independent live music in San Jose.
“The community is great in the South Bay,” he says. “Everybody wants shows to happen. Everybody tries to come out to shows and as a result there’s little DIY spots popping up. But, at the same time, it’s also hard because a lot of these places get shut down, especially all ages spaces. Whether it’s backyard shows, house shows, a warehouse or parking lot, the hard part is keeping spots open.”
Maybe that’s not surprising. Selling the powers that be on the merits of loud, chaotic punk, metal or hardcore music is far more difficult than finding its audience. Gareth thinks that the key to edging the city closer to acceptance lies in working with them to shift the more fringe elements of local live music into the public square.
“We either need to open up the existing huge events, like city-type events such as Subzero or First Friday where we can have a lot more of the underground bands able to rent out a stage or close down a street—or a grant from the city to create something like that to provide an avenue for the kids and the scene. We [need to] get attention from the city, and from people who aren’t involved in music, that can put more eyes on [the scene] in a positive light, rather than driving it into the shadows.”
ON THE BEAT
Another recent face on the scene is the Coterie Den in Japantown.
Founded by a group of three friends—local rapper LJame$, photographer Anthony “Del $ol” Gutierrez and music producer Dro—the Coterie Den is a unique new creative establishment offering a wide-range of creative services and spaces. Rather than focus on being a venue, it hosts occasional shows while offering local artists a recording space, photography studio, video services and more.
“The way we met was through a mutual friend,” recalls Guttierrez. “The goal was to throw a local show. That very first show we started off with like nine people on the team; but by the day of the show there were only the three of us remaining. It kind of showed us, we are the last three standing: let’s keep moving forward.”
As LJame$ grew his rap career, Anthony picked up a camera and started taking pictures while Dro perfected his recording techniques. Spiritually, they moved as a team.
When an opportunity to rent a unique basement space in Japantown emerged in late 2021, the trio jumped on it.
“We got in here and we realized we could do multiple things at the same time,” Gutierrez says.
Now, more than a year later, the Coterie Den has been outfitted with practically everything an artist might need to facilitate his or her work: photography sets, music video shoots, open houses, space for pop-up shops, a recording studio, live art exhibitions and art retailing.
“We wanted to be a multi-creative space that serves a diverse range of artists,” says LJame$. “When they come here, they can record, get their headshots done and possibly even host their own concert. Whatever niche they’ve got, we can host it.”
Hosting a concert there is indeed possible, as the three soon found out. With a capacity of a little under 100 people (plus one rickety spiral staircase entrance), they pulled off the live show test, which only emboldened the team’s ambition—an ambition that remains rooted in the South Bay.
“People always say ‘move to LA, move to LA,’ but it never sat right with me because I’ve seen so much talent and potential in San Jose,” LJame$ says. “What we have to add to the music and entertainment industry, and that so many talented people come from here—the story needs to be told here.”
Yonex Jones, meanwhile, started his empire with one truck, a couple exotic snacks and the word “Tankshit.”
Now a few years later, Jones sits at the helm of a growing movement, with two full-sized shops on wheels, a retail storefront and live music space—and plans to grow even more.
Something of a renaissance man, Jones is a rapper, artist and business-owner with his sights set on the future. Currently, his multi-use space, the Tankshop, is largely devoted to a retail store selling exotic food items and clothing. But it also hosts live music. Although it is equipped only with a bluetooth mic and speaker, Jones has already brought a litany of events through the Tankshop, including weekly open mics and showcases from up and coming rappers like Kasher Quon, David Verde and Landon Cube. This January, they hosted Afroman.
Like everyone in Silicon Valley, Yonex and company are making it up as they go—and finding great success in the process.
“Everything is really self-taught, learning the professional aspects of everything. Even learning how to fill out an application while filling out an application,” Jones says with a laugh.
“It’s very homegrown. We didn’t come in here planning on making it a venue; it just turned out to be a sick-ass kick-it spot,” he adds. “Everybody knows this is where it’s at, the good vibes, and the music and energies are all here.”
Energy is the key word. Yonex and his movement exude a chaotic energy. This has drawn attention from the police, who over the course of Tankshop’s life have made their presence repeatedly known. But that hasn’t stopped the movement from growing.
“It’s definitely been bigger crowds ever since we first opened. But it’s not easy to do. I am under a microscope,” Jones says.
This means a lot of early evening or afternoon shows, a tight limit on the crowd, and various other finagling with the city, landlord and neighbors.
“It’s been hard, but through consistency it’s definitely gotten a lot more popular. I started with open mics and giving people a place to express themselves. Now, it’s basically like a popping-ass Starbucks or something. Everybody just pulls up and hangs out,” he says.
Yonex and the Tankshop show no signs of slowing. Jones ultimately has his sights set on creating a multi-purpose roadhouse, where one can get gas, groceries or a beer and enjoy some live music. But he is adamant that his life must inform the music, not the other way around. A rapper himself, he considers all these entrepreneurial aims simply fuel for his own creativity.
THE KIN CROWD
Andrew Saman has seen the ebb and flow of music in San Jose many times over the years. The owner of Mama Kin in downtown San Jose has an extensive background in all things music and keeps a finger to the pulse of the downtown scene. You name it, and the chances are that Saman has managed it. The Ritz, The Continental, Rockbar, and plenty of other establishments. But recent years have been unique, thanks to his acquisition of the former (and beloved) Cafe Stritch, converting it into the brand-new space Mama Kin.
“I’ve been in this business 29 years now, and I’d say this is the hardest time I’ve ever seen as far as the economy and how things are going. Especially for people going out, it’s probably the toughest it’s ever been,” Saman says.
However, Saman admits that Mama Kin has an advantage over other local venues due to its location, name recognition and inertia.
“We’ve had the most momentum of any place I’ve opened. I think a lot of people really missed [Cafe] Stritch and were happy to see some form of it rise up again.”
Besides making sure Mama Kin’s Southern Cajun Creole food offerings are up to snuff, Saman is in constant search for the best bands.
“I’ve taken the old Nashville approach where the locals take the stage midweek and then the bigger bands headline on the weekends.”
What Saman most wants is a fully inclusive experience, plus good food and good live music. And those elements are still expanding, with recurring acts on the calendar and alongside events like salsa dancing lessons.
“At a lot of music venues, you go for the show and the food is an afterthought,” Saman says. “Usually, it’s overpriced and not very flavorful. So, we make sure our food stands on its own. I want people to come here for dinner, even if there isn’t a show.”
Being a restaurant, Mama Kin gets the best of both worlds. It can serve food and alcoholic drinks, but at the same time also allow all ages inside for shows.
As for the music itself, Saman says, “We do a lot of funk, R&B, soul, blues—and every once in a while we dip into some rock. With the genres we do, people are usually pretty well-behaved. They just want to see some real good music.”
Notably absent: hardcore, punk, electronic, hip hop—much of the music of San Jose’s DIY scenes. Like at Art Boutiki and SJZ Breakroom, the music at Mama Kin is unlikely to provoke a moshpit or the lockstep bounce of teenagers jumping in unison.
Before Mama Kin, Saman was general manager at the ill-fated Rockbar Theatre less than two months before he saw the writing on the wall. But that experience hasn’t discouraged him. Saman thinks that success will be found in playing to the audience, not playing them.
“I’ve always been shocked at the music IQ of this community. Lots of people know how to play their instruments, a lot of people know what good music is, and there are a lot of music lovers out here. I think the trick is catering towards that,” he says. “Don’t try to pull anything fast on anybody. Be transparent, show some good music and let the people speak.”
Soon after interviewing both Alex Pansoy and Chris Gough about Playback Studios, shows at the venue came to an abrupt halt. Statements went back and forth on social media as Heavy Lemon scrambled to rebook a month and a half of shows elsewhere. The once thriving all-age live music space has gone away as quickly as it arrived.
Sadly, it’s not alone. Recent years have seen the swift arrival and disappearance of many venues, from Kitty Castle, to 3F Gallery, to LVL Up’s outdoor stage downtown.
Is this the fate of San Jose’s live music scene, to be perpetually its own worst enemy? For every door that opens, two more seem to close. For every venue that can’t support cheap all-ages shows for long, there are others that can only survive offering 21+ shows. The hardcore scene is arguably the most promising, but few venues in San Jose will step up to host their thriving shows. It’s a fate familiar to the best in local hip-hop, who move like entrepreneurs and have found success diversifying their assets, but still struggle for permanent locations to perform.
As the cycle of death and rebirth continues, it’s the music fans who take the hit.
Still, if you build it, they will come. San Jose can surely pack a grassroots crowd. This was clearly proved by the hardcore show billed as “RBS” in June 2021, which drew more than 2,000 people to an industrial parking lot.
“Hardcore is big. Not just in the Bay Area, but in San Jose specifically,” says KD, a local musician and venue operator. “Nothing else rivals it or even comes close to it.”
In June of 2022, KD began holding shows in his small basement practice space near SJSU. Dubbed “Orifice,” the venue quickly began to fill a vital role in the scene, holding weekly indie, noise, hardcore, experimental and electronic shows. The demand proved itself immediately.
“At this point, I’ll start promoting a show and I’m almost scared that too many people are going to show up,” KD says.
It’s a good problem to have. Both for Orifice and for the scene in general.
“In the future, there will be a bigger space for shows,” KD says. “That’s what’s next. Orifice can go different places. It’s only going to get bigger.”