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February 25, 2005

Starkweather and stark weather: Nebraska indie rock

In comments recently (a long time ago, actually) Ambimb asked about Bright Eyes and why Nebraska has such a fertile rock scene. It's a long story and I've been around it for over a decade so I have a little to say.[1]

Nebraska, especially Lincoln and Omaha, has a long history of rockin'. Zager, of 60's one-hit wonders Zager & Evans ("In the Year 2525"), used to live in the house immediately to the south of me. That's mostly unrelated to the current scene which really goes back to Charlie Burton and The Crap Detectors, an influential but obscure punk band from the late '70's.

Like most college towns, Lincoln has always had a pretty busy music scene and Omaha and Lincoln have always had a pretty symbiotic relationship, music-wise. A guy from Lincoln might play guitar in a band in Omaha while drumming for a band in Lincoln. I know at least one person who plays in 4 or 5 different bands. There's not a lot else to do.

I think Conor Oberst mentioned something about the extreme weather as an impetus for the urge of so many local kids to rock and he's probably right. The combination of 100° heat in the summer and subzero cold in the winter pisses people off. Either you fight each other or you beat on drums, wail on guitars and scream into microphones. And like I said, there's really nothing else to do. Plus, there's that Charlie Starkweather legacy that bleeds through Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, an album which is a heavy influence on Conor's songwriting.

I worked in a local record store in the early 90's during a bloom in the local scene. Several Lincoln and Omaha bands made small splashes in the indie scene during that time. Later, I lived in a house with three other guys, one of whom is the current drummer for Bobby Conn, another is a member of berg sans nipple and the other is just a filthy lawyer although he also reviews records and rock shows at No Matter What you Heard.

The house in which I lived had a large basement with a concrete floor and it was in an area where it was hard to piss off the neighbors, so we had rock shows in the basement. At one of those shows was the first time I met Mr. Oberst. I can't remember if Commander Venus [2] played that night or not or if it was the second to last Frontier Trust show.

I do remember seeing Commander Venus around that time, though, and I was blown away. They were pretty Archers of Loaf-y but had an energy that couldn't be denied, led by a skinny, pasty bespectacled kid whose guitar was almost bigger than him. Conor was probably around 15 or 16 then and I was pretty sure he'd make it big, I just didn't realize how big. Commander Venus featured, besides Conor, Ben Armstrong who drums and strums for the excellent Head of Femur (Wow! HoF opened for Wilco at the House of Blues last Saturday it appears), Rob Nansel who now runs Saddle Creek Records(Conor's older brother founded Saddle Creek and is a 3L at my school) and Todd Baechle of The Faint.

Bright Eyes is huge now. The Faint is pretty big. They toured with No Doubt last year. Neva Dinova, another Omaha band, just released a terrific new album. There are a lot of hard working and talented musicians and songwriters around here.[3]

[Update]: A reader emailed to remind me that his old roommate and a friend of everyone is now the bass player for math rock wankers, Hella.

[1]One frequent reader and commenter, besides being a member of the excellent librariancore duo The Hornrimjobs and former guitarist for Mister Baby I believe also sang some backing vocals on previous Bright Eyes albums so that person might have some input as well. Another frequent commenter and my former roommate was the music director at KRNU for awhile and I invite his comments, too. Oh, and Thomas, who is way older than me and played in Lincoln bands for a long time might have some input too, as long as his 1L year at Case Western isn't taking all his time (He really needs to start a blog. Let him know that.).

[2] I have a copy of Commander Venus's impossible to find first album Do You Feel at Home. I've noticed that their second album is going for around $300 on the web. If anyone feels like offering me $500 or so for Do You Feel at Home, I might feel like parting with it.

[3] One more name-drop opportunity. Maroon 5 was just a crappy pop band called Kara's Flowers until my old next-door neighbor, James, started playing guitar for them.

Posted by Half-Cocked at February 25, 2005 05:17 PM


Uh... seriously, you know you've been in law school etc too long when you put footnotes on your blog posts...

At least there were no citations :)

Posted by: Tim Marman at February 26, 2005 09:43 AM

Wait.. you mean Maroon 5 is NOT a crappy pop band???

Posted by: musclehead at February 26, 2005 04:33 PM

haha, I guess I should have phrased that differently. Maroon 5 is less crappier than its predecessor.

Posted by: Steve at February 26, 2005 05:16 PM

Tim, I love footnotes. And after reading Infinite Jest three times, I only wish Wallace had the good sense to use footnotes instead of endnotes.

Posted by: Steve at February 27, 2005 02:46 AM

Something that shouldn't be overlooked in answering the question of what has historically made for a good music scene is the quality of the local record stores. This may not be so important in the post-Napster world, but if you listen to a lot of the crap that passes for "alternative" today, it's clear that these bands grew up not on indie rock, but on the grunge bands that made it big. Hence they suck. In other words, bands that come from the indie-rock scene are usually much better than the bands that were influenced by them and signed to a major label straightaway. Quality record stores are essential to the process of putting indie rock into the hands of up-and-coming musicians, and Lincoln and Omaha have always had quality independent record stores.

Posted by: Thomas at February 27, 2005 11:38 AM

"Quality record stores are essential to the process of putting indie rock into the hands of up-and-coming musicians, and Lincoln and Omaha have always had quality independent record stores."

Good point, Thomas. I would also add that it's important to expose up-and-coming musicians to non-indie rock. Springsteen is a good example. Remember when Avril Lavigne didn't know who the Clash were?

Posted by: Steve at February 27, 2005 12:50 PM

Or for that matter when Britney Spears was asked why she decided to do a cover of "I Love Rock and Roll," she replied, "Because I love Pat Benatar!"

Yeah. You gotta learn your history.

Posted by: Thomas at February 27, 2005 02:48 PM

I won't pay you $300, but I would appreciate it if you could burn a copy of "Do You Feel at Home" if you have the capability.

Posted by: Eric H at February 27, 2005 11:37 PM

I could write pages upon pages about the NE scene, how most of the bands I weaned on deserved far more attention/adulation than they received, and how refreshing it was/is to be involved in a scene (even peripherally or as a fan) that was so warm and inviting. But perhaps someday I'll do that I my own blog. Instead, I have only two words: Thirteen Nightmares.

Posted by: Kevin at February 28, 2005 08:25 AM

Yeah, Kev, I could have gone on forever but I glossed over quite a bit because I was just aiming to answer the question Ambimb asked.

BTW, did you ever get your hands on a copy of 13 Nightmares' 2nd album?

Posted by: Steve at February 28, 2005 08:36 AM

Damn! Not even making the footnotes anymore.

Posted by: bernie at February 28, 2005 04:09 PM

Ah, Bernie. Sideshow is still my second favorite Lincoln band ever. I just didn't want this post answering a specific question turning into a 5000 word essay.

Posted by: Steve at February 28, 2005 04:31 PM

what makes a thriving music scene?

i have no idea. ...people who are good friends who like to surprise and entertain eachother? that helps i guess.

i think the footnotes got me through a number of terry pratchett and robert anton wilson novels.

Posted by: julee at March 1, 2005 10:28 AM

Steve - just kidding! I just wanted to post and say hi to everybody here. Finally set up a personal site (no B word!) which will be abandoned in a few weeks.

Posted by: bernie at March 1, 2005 11:23 AM

oops - make that: http://www.bluno.org

Posted by: bernie at March 1, 2005 12:12 PM

Heh, yeah, I figured that out pretty quick.

Posted by: Steve at March 1, 2005 12:57 PM

That was awesome! I'd still love to read the 5,000 word essay, though, as well. You should consider pulling all/some of this together for an article to pitch to Rolling Stone or Salon or something. I know, that maybe sounds crazy and it's been done, but not like you could do it, I'm thinking. Maybe this is just me and my long-buried dreams of being a gonzo rock journalist.

Posted by: ambimb at March 8, 2005 11:16 AM

I think there were a lot of critical ingredients for the amazing music scene in Omaha/Lincoln. I was there in the late 80s/early 90s, and there was a very major feeling (at least by me) that something very big was happening. There were tons of people writing incredible music.

One thing that I think can't be overestimated with Conner is how he was taken under wing by Simon Joyner, Chris Deden, Alex McManus, and others. Simon's album, Umbilical Chords, completely blew me away, and I still think it's one of the best albums ever. He completely inspired all kinds of people, including Conner, as he indicates in many interviews. Lots of people were dying to do something half that good. But Simon really encouraged Conner, and Simon and Chris released some of his very early work on their label, Sing Eunuchs! I remember wondering who in the hell this little kid with a guitar was. But they also encouraged other people, like forcing Alex (the Bruces) to release his stuff.

There was a real atmosphere of co-promotion, with local labels like Caulfield, One Hour, and Sing Eunuchs! putting out local music and record stores like the Antiquarium promoting and playing the hell out of the good local stuff. Additionally, I think Dave Sink helped bands like Mousetrap and Cactus Nerve Thang get signed to Grass records and get played on John Peel's show.

There were so many great bands and artists then, like Mousetrap, Simon Joyner, the Bruces, Frontier Trust, Bill Hoover, Fischer, and on and on. There was so much happening and so little attention from the outside, and I think that was a great thing. People realized that you could make amazing music, but weren't always thinking about that cover of whatever music magazine that other bands feel they need to be validated.

I believe that all of that set the stage for this next round with all of the Saddle Creek bands. They realized that you can do all of this yourself, without waiting for someone else to tell you that you have the right to play. I don't know much of anything about the atmosphere there these days, but it sounds like it has a lot of the same elements of excitement and support that characterized the previous era.

Posted by: Elevator Ride at March 11, 2005 01:07 PM

ER, thanks for commenting. Like you, I thought something big was happening, it just took a little longer than I would have thought. You're right though, the isolation of LinOma made it more cool, somehow. I remember seeing a Sideshow/Mousetrap/Ritual Device/Mercy Rule show at the Cog Factory that still ranks as my top live music experience of all time. Even with Paw showing up and sucking.

Yeah, I kinda skimmed over a lot of stuff. Simon Joyner et al. were definitely big in the development of Bright Eyes, probably Lullaby for the Working Class, too. Maybe I'll pull together a comprehensive series of posts on the subject a little later.

Do I know you?

Posted by: Steve at March 11, 2005 03:09 PM

That would would be great! Please do. I don't think we know each other. I didn't really know many people in the music scene. I just spent way too much time hanging around the Antiquarium.

Posted by: Elevator Ride at March 12, 2005 01:33 PM

For anyone that owns a copy of the Commander Venus CD Do You Feel at Home. I am willing to pay big bucks for even a burnt copy of that cd. Please Contact me at ari_litt@yahoo.com to let me know if you have a copy you will be either willing to sell to me or burn for me for a price. This is a serious proposal. No Joke. Please contact me.

Posted by: Chris Skabla at March 27, 2005 02:32 AM

The best part about that show with paw 12 years ago was that most everyone left before Paw played. Paw had to load out in the rain.

Posted by: ccrawford at June 4, 2005 01:36 PM

Craig? You didn't stay around to help those guys load out? How insensitive.

I always had the impression Paw just sort of showed up and announced they were headlining since they had the record out on A & M. They flat out sucked.

Posted by: Steve at June 4, 2005 02:23 PM