Richmond rock band Avers performs at The Broadberry to celebrate the release of the new album "Omega/Whatever," through EggHunt Records. (Photo by Jay Paul)
A few police vehicles sit down an alley, lights swinging, less than a block north of West Broad Street downtown. No one else is on the street. And no one, other than Marty Key, is at Steady Sounds on this Saturday morning.
Soon, a handful of people are milling around Key’s vinyl record store, digging in bins, mining for gold. “It’s really dangerous to live so close,” a customer says, looking down at a hefty pile of used records. “Every time I walk by, I wind up dropping $20.”
“Today, you’re dropping $23.17,” the record-store proprietor says.
Key’s been in and out of the city since the 1990s, calling New York home for a bit before returning to Richmond in 2010. He opened the shop in September of that year.
“I think it’s on an upswing, it really is,” he says of music in Richmond. “One of the reasons I moved was it just seemed like everything was closing and everyone was moving away. While I was in New York, all of a sudden this scene popped up. It was crazy to come back and see this vibrant scene and people being so proactive.” The opening of venues such as Strange Matter, Balliceaux, Black Iris Gallery, The National, The Broadberry, The Tin Pan and Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in the last decade has helped to nurture musicians’ increased activity, he notes.
Key’s shop and its attendant label that releases new and archival works by area ensembles are part of the growing infrastructure that’s necessary to foster area bands. So are record labels Spacebomb and EggHunt, founded in 2011 and 2014, respectively, which have propelled acts like Natalie Prass, Matthew E. White, Lucy Dacus and Avers, and companies such as Lights Out Management, co-founded by Tyler Williams of The Head and the Heart.
Steady Sounds serves as a locus for sometimes haughty, but always friendly, music chatter. You’re as likely to stumble into a conversation here about Richmond-based metal bands GWAR or Windhand as you are to hear about local ’70s soul act Ujima. Back then, as now, no single genre could serve to hem in Richmond.
Still, despite the occasional nod from media outlets such as NPR Music, Thrillist and Pitchfork, Richmond’s potential transcendence to a music city such as Austin or Seattle is hampered by the lack of a support system — agents, media representatives, labels, local music festivals, artist promotion — and by the vast array of its talent being cordoned off into insular scenes. Spacebomb and EggHunt, for example, have little connection with the punk and hardcore labels Grave Mistake or Feel It.
To grow and retain talent, to offer shows that pay more than a pittance, and to provide a scaffolding to reach a wider audience require a concerted and unified effort.
FREEDOM TO EXPERIMENT
As Richmond gains attention for its restaurant scene, river-centric activities and creative community — Men’s Journal named the city “the modern cultural capital of the South” in April — interest in urban living is on the rise. The city’s population increased by 7.89 percent between 2010 and 2015 to about 220,000 people, according to census data and estimates, outpacing 4.1 percent growth nationally. The influx of energy from new residents naturally feeds into music as well as art, theater, dance and other cultural offerings.
One of the hubs of activity is Virginia Commonwealth University’s music department, where sax and trumpet player Marcus Tenney of the No BS! Brass Band is an adjunct instructor of jazz. “It’s one thing to tell them you have to go out and play,” Tenney says about his students after a gig at 7 Hills Brewing Co. “It’s another thing to say, ‘I’m going to go play. Come hang out and be around the music.’ ”
Since graduating from VCU in 2008, Tenney has invested himself in helming jazz combos, recording a hip-hop project and working alongside the Jellowstone Records crew, which records and distributes music for No BS! Brass and several other acts.
Tenney acknowledges the role his program at VCU plays in bolstering the pool of local talent, pointing out Macon Mann, host of Vagabond restaurant’s weekly jazz series, as a student he might see playing if he walks into a club on any given night.
In addition to the academic and real-world education students can pick up from instructors, Richmond’s low-key profile as a music town presents some advantages for aspiring musicians, he says.
“There’s not a lot of infrastructure for how things are supposed to go,” Tenney says. “When we were trying to learn how to play, it was based on what people liked. That’s how you wind up with stuff like No BS or the stuff Matthew White’s doing at Spacebomb. Those guys just did whatever they wanted. No one’s here to say whether something’s good or bad.“
The unfettered freedom to experiment jibes with access to the Interstate 95 corridor and relatively inexpensive housing costs, making the city a hospitable place for someone pursuing a career in music.
Still, something’s missing.
Marcus Tenney, jazz instructor and member of No BS! Brass Band (Photo courtesy Lauren Serpa)
“I think that it’s absolutely in Richmond’s nature to become a city like that,” Tenney says about the area possibly becoming a musical flashpoint. “We just need to become more conscious of how to integrate into the rest of the world.”
“Richmond’s like a basketball team without a coach.” — Marcus Tenney, musician
The surprising breadth of offerings here — acts as dissimilar as Tenney’s brass troupe, the metallic Inter Arma and the Lucy Dacus’ bijou pop — have attracted more than a modicum of notice from beyond Richmond’s music enclaves. It just hasn’t reached a fever pitch.
“We need coaching,” Tenney says about the city being on the precipice. “Richmond’s like a basketball team without a coach.”
Just west of the VCU campus, inside Tyler Williams’ 100-year-old brick home, the cover from Television’s 1978 album “Adventure” is posted adjacent to a turntable. The New York band’s second LP brims with CBGB’s enthusiasm and opens with a track called “Glory.” It’s something that Richmond’s aiming for, in name at least.
“Starting local is one thing, but I don’t think we’re locally focused. We’re focused on things that ignite passion,” says Williams, a member of The Head and the Heart, who, along with Brandon Crowe, started Lights Out Management in February and touts Dacus, recently signed to Matador Records, as a client.
The company joins Dreamboat Management, which handles Natalie Prass, and the Brixton Agency with representatives in the area. (In 2014, Richmond’s Dean Christesen joined Dreamboat, which was founded in London in 2008; Brixton formed in 2013 and operates in Richmond as well as New York City’s Brooklyn borough.) The mere presence of the companies here might indicate a realization that proper management is part of becoming a full-time musician with national reach.
“We want to stay small,” Williams says. “There may come a time that we’re signing other artists, but we’re not really looking at that now.”
Williams, who grew up in Fredericksburg but was beckoned by visions of Richmond’s music scene he conjured from hearing radio advertisements about upcoming shows, decamped to Seattle between 2009 and 2011, at the prompting of his friend Jonathan Russell. The two packed up a Volvo wagon and drove across the country.
After some lineup adjustments, The Head and the Heart signed to Seattle’s Sub Pop Records and, after releasing a pair of albums, inked a deal with Warner Bros. Set for release Sept. 9 is “Signs of Light,” a disc that slightly tamps down the band’s folksy inclinations and allows for honeyed pop to seep out.
Now, Williams wants to help give other groups a boost.
“I saw friends who were amazing musicians and in great bands, but there was no place for them to get heard by anyone in the industry,” Williams says. “There’s starting to be more of an infrastructure with EggHunt, paying for press [agents], paying bands to make records.”
He refers a couple of times to the way Seattle supports homegrown acts. There aren’t large-scale festivals in Richmond focused on new, local bands. A hospitable mid-size venue holding 1,000 people would be of help, too, he says.
“I feel like there are a lot of pieces missing from the puzzle,” Williams concludes.
Whatever’s not in place, though, hasn’t deterred a succession of performers from attaining some sort of notice outside the area — Devonne Harris, under his DJ Harrison guise, wrapped a summer tour of the West Coast and Night Idea inked an agreement to issue “Breathing Cold,” the proggy group’s latest full-length LP, through Chicago’s Gigantic Noise records early in the fall.
Engineer and producer Bryan Walthall, who helms local production company Stereo Image, didn’t have a hand in Night Idea’s coming recording, but he’s on board for its follow-up, the band said.
“They’ve done the right things, booked the right tours and gotten on the right podcasts,” Walthall says about Night Idea’s potential to mount the national stage. “In today’s world, if you’ve got someone to pay for your wax, that’s a good look.”
The band trucks in knotty and cerebral rock, a brand of music that gained traction with American listeners after the surprising rise of Explosions in the Sky and ensembles of its ilk. Night Idea’s own idiosyncrasies are spliced into the band’s works — imagine if Pink Floyd started a 21st-century indie band.
“They do more melodic stuff and then it’s sectioned off by mathy prog rock. They’ll have some nice melodies and ethereal spacey stuff and just jam out,” Walthall says. “Some of the math and prog stuff is just all virtuoso, ‘Hey, look how fast I can do this arpeggio.’ And they do that, but there’s a good bit of harmony.”
The rub is that if more Richmond-based ensembles and performers catch the country’s collective ear, Walthall worries that he and others in the local creative class could be priced right out of their apartments and homes.
Most nights, black-clad concert-goers stand outside Strange Matter, which boasts a capacity of about 200, below The Broadberry’s 360, and significantly less than The National’s 1,500-person cap. On July 9, the venue played host to seven bands, including the psychedelic Tate House (shown on page 86). Proceeds from the door are intended to help spruce up the place, as well as possibly be used for assorted microphones and gear. A similar event with multiple bands is planned to raise money for Gallery5 on Sept. 17 from noon to midnight.
“While Strange Matter’s doing fine, there’s a lot of stuff we’d like to do, but the money isn’t there,” Mark Osborne, the space’s talent buyer, says. “Just general wear and tear — there’s not a rainy day fund for when something goes wrong.”
The venue specializes in more aggressive strains of music — everything from metal to punk can be found splattered across the stage over the course of a month. Lucy Dacus doesn’t easily slot into those genres, but Osborne recalls the first time he booked her.
“I was just looking for a band for a show and somebody suggested that I check her out,” he says. “All of the touring bands were like, ‘That’s one of the best locals we’ve played with.’ I always thought she was good, but started to pay more attention.”
A swarm of other people have begun to notice as well. Dacus, along with David Bowie and Kendrick Lamar, was included in a Time magazine list detailing 2016’s best releases to date. The singer has also made it to Matador, a significant independent label, booked a national tour and performed at Chicago’s Lollapalooza. Her first album, the stunningly sophisticated “No Burden,” is set to be reissued by Matador on Sept. 9. And Dacus’ contract promises a second effort, as well as an option to record a third.
The songwriter, who can go from the rock rumble of “Troublemaker Doppelgänger” to gauzy folk on “Trust,” says she thinks part of what’s held Richmond back is slacker lore and a lack of communal spirit. She’s working to change both.
“For a long time, Richmond has had a lot of good art, but not a lot of good infrastructure.” — Lucy Dacus, singer-songwriter
“There’s a mythology, a mystique around the artist that’s really insular, where instead of having a community wanting to help people and show people how to book or get shows — I’ve seen people want to appear as if their music is so good that this is all magically happening,” she says by phone prior to hitting the road for a spate of concert dates.
Any snippet off “No Burden” might sound like some incantation destined to ease into the country’s consciousness, its rock veneer slightly subverted by Dacus’ affective writing. Part of her momentum has to do with not just her innate talents, but the mounting support Richmond is offering its artists.
“For a long time, Richmond has had a lot of good art, but not a lot of good infrastructure. I don’t know of any people who book [tours] in Richmond,” she says. “That’d be cool to see — some agencies pop up. The big one for me, though, is EggHunt Records. I don’t know where I’d be without Adam.”
She's referring to Adam Henceroth, an anesthesiologist who started EggHunt Records with Greg Gendron. Since 2014, they have dispatched more than a dozen discs, ranging from Dacus’ effort to Avers’ cultured pop stuff. EggHunt recently opened offices along West Broad, not far from Steady Sounds. Henceroth has positioned the imprint as a launching pad for bands wanting to make music a full-time gig.
“I was never able to do that,” says Henceroth, who also plays and writes music, mainly for his own enjoyment. “It’s fun and inspiring to support people like that. If we have more artists that really dedicate themselves to taking music on the road, I think getting out there and representing Richmond — it’s a bottleneck and it’ll be broken.”
What separates EggHunt from other local labels — and there are a handful: Bad Grrrl, Citrus City and Forcefield among them — is the networking and business development Henceroth details. He mentions distribution deals and familiarity with booking agents and account managers at Spotify and iTunes.
As for what kind of acts interest him, he says, “I’m looking for people in the rest of the country, or even outside of the U.S. to say, ‘That’s hot.’ And we have people in Richmond creating that level of music,” Henceroth says. “It’s crazy to think about.”
It’s early afternoon at Steady Sounds, and Drew Necci steps in with a sturdy stack of records to sell.
“Speaking of unsung heroes of the Richmond scene,” Key says, greeting the musician and former RVA magazine editor. The two have known each other for about 20 years; a very specific brand of institutional knowledge crackles in their conversation.
Marty Key of Steady Sounds (Photo by Julianne Tripp)
“There are always people who should have made it,” Key says. “I’m wearing this Honor Role shirt. They were a post-hardcore band before post-hardcore.”
The city used to be smaller, even as bands occasionally surged toward national consciousness. The DNA of it is still the same, and the city’s divergent music offerings haven’t been streamlined. Metal, soul and pop are plentiful in equal measure.
“How do you market Richmond?” asks Necci, who currently plays in three bands around town, but can trace a constant trail of engagement with the city’s rock underground back to the ’90s. “There’s a million different little scenes going on. ... You could easily do that with Lucy Dacus. You could easily do that with Spacebomb and Natalie Prass. You could do it with GWAR and all the metal bands. No matter what you pick, there’s going to be a huge amount of other people doing other things. And that’s really what makes the city important. All of it’s thriving and all of its allowing people to be creative.”