Scoping the Northeast L.A. Music Scene

Anita Marto

The Eagle Rock Music Festival is much more than a couple of oompah bands on the sidewalk playing for tips in a tuba case; it is the musical equivalent of an Easter egg hunt. The 2008 line-up featured 16 venues and 72 musical acts; impressive for a community of any size. Why Eagle Rock of all places? Few L.A. natives are even aware of where Eagle Rock is; for the uninitiated, it is a charming, small community nestled between Glendale on the west, Pasadena on the east and just north of Highland Park. Apparently there is something special going on musically in the northeast area of Los Angeles (Eagle Rock and Highland Park) and that intangible “something” warrants further investigation.

Brian Martinez, 26, a slightly built exotic-looking young man (he’s half Mexican and half Japanese) was the organizer of the Eagle Rock Music Festival. On Oct 5 from 5 p.m. to midnight a section of Colorado Boulevard between Eagle Rock Boulevard and Argus Street was closed down to showcase the areas’ musical talent pool. It was cross-generational and cross-cultural. There was zydeco in a hotel, swing in a small women’s club and blues behind a restaurant -something for everybody. But rock took center stage.

“A lot of small venues along this strip of street don’t want rock in their space, especially the modern, contemporary art rock,” Martinez said. “So you have to put that out on the street.” This included everything from the bright pop-rock of The Flying Tourbillion Orchestra to the big, orchestral hippie sound of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. The quality of the music was amazing. Each band was better than the next.

But why Eagle Rock? “It all started about five years ago,” explained Martinez. “A lot of people and a lot of bands began moving around here, out of Silverlake, Echo Park and moving more into Highland Park, Eagle Rock and Glassell Park, immersing themselves in these different scenarios, working with each other because they’re in such close proximity. They just started to work with a lot of other people and other bands. You see a melting pot going on. You have one band, you have a whole scene of those people. But even within that band there’s like ten other bands. Other bands that know them go out and support them. They all just support each other’s bands. This is the first time for me, in my life to see anything like that. Some bands I feel like really have characteristics that are going to define music.”

Martinez suggested “You know who’s a trip – who you would really like? Don of Don’s Music. He DJs everywhere. He has tons of vinyl. He’s always the go-to guy about local shit. That’s what I love about Don; he brings that vibe of I-don’t-know-what’s-gonna-happen unexpected energy.” So, it was off to Don’s Music down the street for more about Eagle Rock’s bourgeoning music scene.

The small store consists of a large hodgepodge of old LP records from Sinatra to jazz to show tunes and fresh-off-the-press rock. They are organized in some kind of order that only Don knows about. An old bike and musical instruments share space with the vinyl. The walls are adorned with paintings, music posters, an “Elvis-1” license plate from Graceland, Tennessee and a small tiki mask. Don, late 40s-ish with wispy-thin dyed blonde hair and bushy brown eyebrows, wears a rumpled yellow T-shirt that reads “Asilomar 2008.” I don’t know whether it refers to “The Asilomar Conference on Signals, Systems and Computers” or the Church of Religious Science conference, both held at the Asilomar Conference Center in Monterey, CA earlier this year. Maybe it’s neither.

Unlike Brian Martinez, Don seems downright unfriendly when I tell him about my research. “What’s the context?” he asks with suspicion in his voice. “You don’t even have a press card. Wear a whatchamacallit around your neck.” I ask him about the neighborhood. “It’ll be a year or two until the neighborhood sucks” he complains, “Like they used to say, how did they say? Silverlake is the new Hollywood and Eagle Rock is the new Silverlake, so that means we’ve got about another year.”

Some of his favorite local bands are “Die Rockers Die, Health Club, Manhattan Murder Mystery, the Guppies and Magic Bitches.” “Yeah, there’s plenty of special stuff going on,” he explains,” but it’s all on a micro level. It’s all individuals making this happen. It seems like all of the old models are all dying. Corporate music is dead. Everybody markets themselves nowadays. It’s just about having fun, it seems like. A lot of bands today, they don’t care about making it big. They like playing. They step out there on the internet and see where it takes ’em. You make more money if you’ve got a good song just putting it on your MySpace page and selling it for 99 cents or iTunes. Who needs a record contract now?”

It was time for me to go see some of this music for myself. Brian Martinez recommended a band called Seasons. They were playing at the infamous Mr. T’s Bowl in Highland Park that Friday night, a club where Beck and The Breeders had gotten their start. I had always wanted to check it out but didn’t want to shlep out to Highland Park. Now I had an excuse. The place is a converted bowling alley and I couldn’t wait to see it.

I assumed the entrance was in the front. I was wrong, although you can get in that way and I did. I curiously crept down a long, dark hallway, which had a nice array of photographs of people partying. There were some Formica counters on my right and some coffee shop style red booths to my left. This place, in its own dilapidated way, was straight out of the 50s.

Further down and straight ahead was the sound booth, manned by Arlo, which I guessed used to be the counter where bowlers paid for lanes and got their shoes. Through a latticed window above the booths I could see a small bowling alley bar. It is a cozy place with red vinyl boots against one wall and the bar against the other. There are stuffed snowmen and tinsel hanging from the ceiling. Christmas lights decorate the bottles of booze behind the bar. Mani was bartending that night. He has been Mr. T’s bartender for 30 years and been sober almost as long. At 75, he’s still working there two days a week.

Looking a little like Santa Claus, Mani is bald-headed and white-bearded with a little paunch. I could imagine telling him my troubles as countless others have. But I wasn’t there for conversation over a Long Island iced tea, I was there to shoot photos of Seasons, a very visual band, and ask them about the Northeast Scene – the up-and-coming music of Eagle Rock, Highland Park and the surrounding area.

In front of the sound booth is a wide-open area with bench-chairs for the audience. To the left is the stage. One thing I noticed right away is that there is no dress code; people come here to hang out and have a good time in their comfortable clothes. The atmosphere is friendly, a far cry from the pretentious Hollywood clubs on the Sunset Strip.

Hanging at the back of the stage is a large curtain. Journalistic curiosity compelled me to see what was behind it. In the semi-darkness, I could make out the especially decrepit bowling alleys and lots of piled up old metal-and-vinyl chairs. Musicians were setting up equipment back there. This space has potential – for what I am not sure, but the 50s bowling alley has a downbeat kind of charm.

A band called Death to Anders was rockin’ the walls and I decided to venture out to see them perform. I took a few photographs and waited for Seasons to set up.

The band is a motley bohemian array of eight guys. John Huerta, the keyboard player, sported a red corduroy suit and oversized sunglasses. The singer, Nic Garcia, wore a “Dare to Keep Kids off Drugs” T-shirt, baggy pants and a ski cap. Someone festively arranged lights on the stage over the equipment. All I can say about their music is that it is indescribably fun and they were thoroughly entertaining subjects to shoot.

After the show everybody gravitated outside behind the building for “social hour.” Apparently this exit is actually the main entrance. I gathered the guys for a few more pictures and then asked Huerta about the Northeast music scene.

“There’s so much happening in the scene right now,” he said. “There’s so much power behind it where all these bands are so undiscovered. We’re playing shoulder to shoulder, side by side and we’re working towards this thing. Y’know it’s really a community. It’s really a community of musicians backing each other up really playing music for music. You’re not in Hollywood. You’re not trying to do the label thing. This is just music for what it is. The scene right now, there’s just such good music. If you don’t realize it you just need to turn your attention.”

Jon Hershfield, formerly of and the man behind local music site agrees. “The first time I did an event at Mr. T’s Bowl, I remember thinking, ‘people actually drive out here to see live music?’ But once the first band went up, it suddenly made sense,” he says. “This was not pay-to-play, nobody cared how you were dressed, and while the bartender may not have known a gimlet from a cosmo, the actual sound emanating from the stage was fantastic. In other words, independent music was alive and well outside of the confines of the so-called scene.”

Rumor has it that Mr. T’s Bowl may be on the brink of closing, but Hershfield reports, “According to multiple members of Mr. T’s staff, they are only closing for the first two weeks in January, planning to re-open with a few cosmetic changes. Yippee!” and Seasons have been collaborating on free live events at Mr. T’s on the first Friday of every month – a great way to experience local music and a bargain as well. “While some people are content just sharing mp3’s online, Seasons and I have been sharing bands on the stage, introducing each other to great music the Sunset Strip wouldn’t touch,” says Hershfield, with justifiable pride. “The drive to Highland Park appears to be shortening with each gig. Whether it’s up there, over there, out there, or way out there, this is where a truly independent sound is defining itself right now.” Get it while it’s hot.