New London -- If one were to take a big family portrait of the musicians and bands in the New London music scene, it might be hard these days to get everyone together.
Quiet Life, the folk-rock band, might not be there. Or hillbilly-punkists Can Kickers. Or Incognito Sofa Love, a fusion-jam group.
Not that they don't proudly consider themselves hometown bands. It's just that, a year after a heraldic Sunday article in The New York Times proclaimed New London's music scene as a fertile spot, they are among those working most ambitiously to take their careers beyond New London.
Beyond as in: touring and/or recording in far-off climes in pursuit of national and international contacts, fans, gig circuits and merchandising networks.
Meanwhile, in varying degrees of ambition and activity, the rest of the artists remain closer to home in the distinct parameters of the scene — in clubs and rehearsal rooms along the length of Bank State and tributary streets of downtown New London.
Over the years, the music scene has been a sort of revolving carousel of venues. These days, it is found largely in three clubs — Oasis Pub, Bank Street Café and the latest incarnation of the El 'n' Gee Club.
Several bands, who write their own music and whose members range in age from their late teens to their 40s, are connected, despite diverse musical styles, by an affinity for indie rock and punk. So, whether country or pop-tinged, their sound is firmly rooted in an era and ethos defined by artists like Pavement, Husker Du, Sebadoh, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, and the Velvet Underground.
The inner circle of the musical enclave, which counts about a dozen bands, includes Fatal Film, the Liz Larsons, Low-Beam, the Paul Brockett Roadshow Band, Brazen Hussy, Estrogen and Tonic, the Royale Brothers, Total Bolsheviks, Society for Rational Dress, Roadside Attractions, the Cavities.
Perhaps at the circle's center is the Reducers, the renowned pub rock band that formed almost 30 years ago and was the first to draw a national focus on New London. The band remains active and the area's best known group.
Since the Times' coronation of the scene, several things have happened.
Last September, New London hosted the I Am Festival, a one-day free show along the city's waterfront that brought in burgeoning national artists like Girl Talk and the Rye Coalition, as well as other regional bands and two New London acts. Folks from all over New England and New York attended.
In November, the latest edition in a CD series, “Towers of New London, Vol. 4,” came out to great regional acclaim. And a few weeks ago, members of various local bands were on WNPR's “Where We Live” radio program to discuss the scene.
“I take a trip up to New London at least once a month to see bands,” said Patrick Ferrucci, the music writer at the New Haven Register. “The New London scene is just another example of how vibrant a small city can be. I can't imagine it being much longer until a (New London) band gets lucky and seriously breaks out.”
In Connecticut, only New Haven's coterie of venues and original music bands rival the New London scene in terms of quality.
“Sometimes this place boggles me,” said Sean Murray, a city native and booking agent who oversees the calendar at the popular Oasis Pub on Bank Street and was instrumental in creating the I Am Festival. “Some of the New London bands are really great and could move to a new level. Some are doing that. Others don't know how to do that, or just don't care.”
Members of Quiet Life make no bones about wanting to make it big.
“The New London music scene is a very delicate subject,” said Sean Spellman, the group's frontman/guitarist. “There are a lot of talented people and artists, but a lot of them are satisfied with just creating and being here. That's OK, too. But bands like Can Kickers and us aren't waiting around for anyone else. We're going to do it.”
Quiet Life is readying their first full length CD for a late spring release. They've just returned from a short tour of California, where they played several dates and hooked up with national folk artist Tim Easton, whom they met when Murray booked him into the Oasis Pub. Quiet Life ended up staying with Easton at his Joshua Tree home and recording in his studio.
Incognito Sofa Love, a fusion-jam band, has been branching out on self-booked tours for years and recently signed a production deal that will enable them to release and distribute their CDs nationally.
Can Kickers has toured the country several times and just returned from New Orleans. They're soon headed for Mexico.
“We want to make it,” Spellman said. “Part of doing that, in New London, is not to saturate the market. Even one show a month might be too much. This place is so small, and only so many people can come out on a weekly basis, and there are only so many bands to see. Which is why what (booking agent) Sean Murray's doing is so important by integrating national and regional bands into the mix.”
Not every band with ambition has the ability to hit the road.
“You'd like to just get out and tour and go for it, but sometimes a family situation or day jobs are considerations,” said Rich Martin, perhaps the most tireless proponent of the New London music scene over the years. He now plays with alt-poppers Low-Beam and garage band Brazen Hussy.
Low-Beam is finishing up a full-length CD and hopes to parlay its growing reputation and the city's new fame into a wider audience. Martin has been innovative in the use of college and Internet radio and Web site marketing to boost the band's profile.
Meanwhile, New London is attracting bands from elsewhere.
“One of the things that strikes me about New London is that it's providing a foundation for the booking agents there to bring in recurring national acts,” said Eric Danton, music critic at the Hartford Courant. “They're bringing in acts you don't ordinarily see in that part of the state — or in Hartford — and providing local support acts. That's good for everybody.”
Such is Murray's strategy.
“Yes, it's important to book bigger bands from other areas into town,” he said. “That increases the viability of New London and allows local bands to get to know and establish contact with other artists. The Times article helped with that. You build on that and things like the I Am Festival.
“At this point, we have potential. We have some good bands. But to me, a scene is when you actually cause a scene. That's where we're going.”
Paul Brockett, leader of the Paul Brockett Roadshow Band, a blistering throwback honky tonk act considered one of the city's reliably great headliners, is cautious in describing effects of the Times article.
“I can't say that we've run into any particular advantage because the article came out,” said Brockett, who explained that his band has been recording with the hopes of releasing a CD soon.
“The article brought a huge sense of pride and maybe hope, but the story also pointed out that a lot of things, economically, have been anticipated in this part of the state. People moving here, bringing in money — and that hasn't happened. So I think the bands continue to work as hard as we always have, whatever each band's goal might be. But I think at this level moving forward is mostly who you know.”
In New London, everyone knows everyone. As Brockett suggested, that's largely a good thing. But it can create problems, too.
For example, almost any shows with New London acts will be well attended. But many in the attendance will likely be musicians from other bands in the city.
“Yeah, a lot of the crowds are other musicians, but not overwhelmingly so,” Martin said. “It reflects the people who live here. It's an artistic community on a lot of levels. Plus, it shows the sort of internal support you need to sustain something like this.”
In the support network, there has been a tendency for players in the established bands to musically cross-pollinate, creating a series of alter-ego groups — some of which come off as less serious or accomplished but which, nonetheless, secure routine bookings on Friday and Saturday nights.
So, for every Brockett band and others competitive in a national context, there are acts of lesser ability surviving in an environment that allows them to do so.
If the scene gets bigger with a steady influx of out-of-town groups, however, there is some question about room for the more amateurish performers. Can a burgeoning regional, or even national destination afford the quaint fun of such bands?
For a first-time visitor, watching some of these bands can be confusing at best, off-putting at worst. On a recent night in the Bank Street Café, for example, two club-goers who'd earlier attended a live music happy hour featuring a polished country band in the same room, watched in disbelief as a new group from the New London scene played. The place was full of other local band members, who responded to the opening songs with enthusiastic applause.
The two newcomers were less than impressed. One turned to the other and said, “This is the [New London scene]?”
The second laughed, nodded at the stage, and said, “Wow. The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East.”
Matt Clark, keyboardist in futuristic pop band Fatal Film, one of the city's most accomplished and popular bands, said, “My opinion is that New London is certainly fertile in terms of the sheer number of bands. But just because there's a lot of them doesn't mean they're all good. Yes, the scene is close-knit and can be self-congratulatory.
“On one hand, the scene has sort of earned it. On the other hand, you can't tell the truth about how bad some of the bands are because you have to see these people socially and that affects what you say. To hear people in town talk about the New London music scene, you'd think all these bands are brilliant. They're not.”
Murray agrees. “It can be very much like a social club. You know how some people refer to scenes with the 'core' suffix? Slo-core or emo-core? I like to call New London friend-core.
“I love it here, and I love the musicians, but I think the scene would be a lot healthier if we weren't going out every weekend to see the same bands. We need to go out every weekend and see one of our bands coming back from somewhere — and maybe bringing a band from another town with them.
“That's how to expand and market our area. We definitely moved forward since the Times article came out. A little. But we all have to take some risks. For 20 years people have been saying we're the next big place. But we're not Athens, Georgia., or Olympia, Washington, yet.”