Music scenes are like phantoms: Point them out, and they disappear; name them and they shift; call out a great house-show venue and watch it evaporate.
It’s sometimes best to keep tabs on a scene from the corner of your eye, a silent interloper without much fanfare.
Historically Eugene has had good music: a university breeding massive entrenched institutions for classical music and jazz; a history of blues and acoustic string music; scrappy rock bands with varying degrees of success. And let’s not forget those Grateful Dead shows.
Eugene has more music than this town can handle and better music than it deserves. But these days especially — and not limited to underground punk, hardcore and garage rock — there are whispers on the wind of things being as good as ever: new venues, a proliferation of bands and a planting of flags. Chatter coming from larger metro areas says people are catching on. Our secret could soon be revealed.
There’s more to a music scene than bands. They can’t exist without networks of bookers, fans, labels and advocates, so Eugene Weekly talked to a handful of people who exert strong influence on Eugene’s music scene of the future. They represent a cross section of Eugene’s DIY ethos in indie music.
While thinking about this list, we considered words like “important,” “powerful” or “best.” But we landed on “influencer,” because influencer says exactly what we mean.
We picked these six people because their spark, drive and ambition — whether in booking shows, performing on stage, producing records or running labels — is part of the “now” our little scene is experiencing, a momentum that could catapult us into tomorrow.
So let’s not label what’s going on. Let’s just observe, and see where it’s headed. And, in the meantime, let’s get to know a few of the people who are helping us get there.
Joshua Isaac Finch
Editor, booker, bassist, noisemaker. Age: 35.
When it comes to DIY music, Josh Finch does it all. Former editor of now-defunct Eugene music zine Exiled In Eugene, Finch books shows at Old Nick’s Pub, operates a tape label called Flossless Audio, plays bass in Eugene doom-core band An Empty Room and is “primary noise-maker” with Entresol, a one-person, self-described “queer-folk-noise-act.”
A background in a repressive “super-religious” household in Central Oregon led Finch to music, and music, ultimately, led to Eugene.
“I was an ‘indoor kid’ and was tormented at school,” Finch recalls. “Music was the one place I could turn that always felt inviting, supportive and warm. I wouldn’t be here without it.”
You self-identify as “non-gender binary.” How does that affect your art?
If you asked me two years ago I’d have said it has nothing to do with it. But it’s becoming more and more a thing because these are dark fucking times, and music is one of the few positives in a lot of these artists and young people’s lives.
Does Eugene music have a sound?
Eugene music sounds like experimentation, growth, and quite often the record or EP an act releases right before [bands] figure out what they really sound like. It is raw, fairly green and honest. And sometimes that can sound like utter garbage if you’re looking for something slick. But the overhead speakers at Starbucks will always be there, if something safe is more your speed.
If you could change one thing about Eugene’s music scene what would it be?
Better communication between venues. With more-careful planning, there could be less direct competition between bigger shows. The more often bigger name acts come through and have a positive experience, the more quality experiences the local acts will have as well.
A “next level” music scene requires a lot of support: volunteers to throw fliers for your friends’ bands, volunteers to throw fliers for DIY spaces like The Boreal. Host a house show. Offer couch or floor space to touring bands, and maybe skip a guest-list spot and pay at the door when your friends level up and play at a bigger venue or with a bigger band. All of this stuff helps more than it seems in the moment.
I feel as if the scene here is noticeably cyclical. There’s a boom of local talent, an upswing in all-ages and house shows, followed by a die-off, complaints of how things used to be better (they probably weren’t) and then a lull before the process repeats.
But I see more rallying together and general scene support than I’ve seen in years. I think that if we aren’t in an upswing, we are building to one.
Booker, DJ, singer. Age: 21.
A student in her final year at the University of Oregon, Dominique Ehmig books shows at The Boreal, an all-ages DIY venue in the Whiteaker; she DJs for KWVA campus radio; and she is vocalist for Eugene grindcore band Paranoiac.
“Extreme music, and its subculture, is the place where I have found sanctuary and support. I love this community and the music and values we share with each other,” Ehmig says.
While Eugene is a relatively small city, it has a well-developed music scene. What makes it work?
Everyone knows each other, and since many shows are put on by volunteers and community members, the ethic of DIY feels genuine and can be inspiring. There are some seriously talented and creative musicians in Eugene and some really great fans and community members.
Socially speaking, music and shows bring people together. I’ve met people through the music scene here that I never would’ve expected to in my life, and I think everyone has something to gain from hearing others’ perspective and stories, and that’s what happens when you see someone play music: You get insight into their mind and what’s going on in their life.
Talk about some things you think might surprise some people about Eugene’s music scene.
I am biased because I’m engaged in heavy music: hardcore, death metal, grindcore, etc. So I am apt to say that extreme music does well here as well as music that pushes the boundaries of genre and sound. I think people are surprised by the amount of noise and experimental artists in the area.
I also think it depends on the act, but there’s a lot of artists here with a strong anti-hate message, which is awesome. I think that music from the Pacific Northwest also tends to be on the moodier side as well; I know I gravitate towards music that has emotional output and feeling, but I also like sillier acts that have fun on stage and joke around with the audience. The scene can feel like a family.
What do you think Eugene’s music scene will be like in ten years?
I’d like to think there’s going to be an increase in the diversity of bands and musicians. Already there are a bunch of really rad bands that include members of marginalized communities, and I think that’s incredibly important going forward so that genres that maybe some people felt were exclusionary or pretentious will become more accessible or friendly.
Something that would be really radical and different is if we had a music festival, or some event that would draw in crowds from out of town and state, so that others can experience the Eugene music scene.
I think that the limits of genre and creativity are going to continue to expand and be tested. When a lot of people think of punk or metal music, they have a pretty limited view of what they think it sounds like or looks like, when in actuality there’s so much diversity in sound and aesthetics.
There are some really creative minds emerging in Eugene, and I think it’s only going to get wilder.
Stephen ‘Pancho’ Buettler
Front man with Pancho + The Factory
Stephen “Pancho” Buettler fronts Pancho + The Factory, one of Eugene’s hottest live acts and just one of many local bands having a moment right now — bands like VCR, Surfs Drugs, Snow White, Le Rev and many more.
If you saw Pancho open for Ty Segall or performing last year at the Whiteaker Block Party, you understand the campy blend of everything from ’60s girl groups, The Cramps and even Rocky Horror Picture Show has the whiff of historic inevitability.
Most important, Buettler works hard to support and foster Eugene’s scene. In fact, he moved to Eugene five years ago because of our “great legacy when it comes to the counterculture.”
“If Eugene continues on the trajectory it’s on right now,” Buettler says, “the music scene could be comparable to a place like Athens, Georgia — a similarly sized city known for churning out big name acts like REM and The B-52s.”
What would help take Eugene’s scene to the “next level” — not just a small college city with surprisingly good music, but a true music capital.
For Eugene to become a “next level” music scene it has to not only think locally but regionally. The Northwest is brimming with talent. I believe it would mutually benefit everyone to “open up the I-5” and create more reliable booking opportunities between Eugene, Portland and Seattle.
I’d like to establish connections with venues in those cities and hold similar events, so Eugene musicians can find it easier to break into their scenes.
It’s often branded a “hippie town,” and I would certainly consider myself a hippie in spirit. But sometimes I think we forget that the essence of this spirit is to adapt and evolve — we don’t always have to look to past forms to draw inspiration. Being a hippie means you celebrate the values of love, inclusivity and a progressive imagination.
Why is it important socially or even economically for Eugene to support its music scene?
In Korea people and artistic forms can be placed on a registry of “intangible assets” and receive official funding and support from the government. This is a recognition that these assets are nothing short of the invisible architecture that makes up a location’s identity and culture.
In this sense, it’s Eugene’s — or any city’s — existential duty to foster a music and arts scene. Without that support we are quite literally conceding our identity. Beyond that, it’s just good business. Concerts benefit virtually every kind of business and help make a city more of a destination.
I don’t believe there’s any one “Eugene sound.” But, in my opinion, that’s a good thing. What you can find in Eugene are excellent examples of any kind of popular genre. Historically, sounds and genres arise out of a melting-pot situation. So, who knows, maybe a few years down the line people will be talking about the unique multi-genre sound of Eugene.
Gone are the days when you move to a larger city to make it. For me the only size that matters is how big your imagination is.
Artist and musician with Novelas. Age: 27.
Artist and musician Kris Ray fronts “melodic hardcore band” Novelas, which frequently performs at The Boreal. Novelas is celebrating the release of its latest EP, out now on cassette and available on Bandcamp.
Novelas’ EP features “South Carolina, God Damn,” part hardcore-eulogy, part fiery and hugely impactful statement about the mass shooting perpetrated by Dylann Roof at a Charleston church.
Ray self-identifies as a “queer, non-binary Afro-Latinx” and says, “I first got into DIY punk and indie music as a teen growing up in SoCal. I needed music that validated my struggle as a femme/person of color, and fast aggressive music gave me that validation as well as helped me realize the power of my voice.”
You’re from SoCal. How does Eugene music measure up?
Eugene has an eclectic music scene that I have grown to love. It’s not as vibrant as the big city scene I’m accustomed to, but it’s got heart and soul. The only down side is that a lot of these shows are at bars. I may be well over the drinking age, but I’m horribly allergic to alcohol.
People need to start leaving the bars and venture to the shows off the beaten path. You’d be surprised at how many good shows happen right under our noses in this town.
What are some misconceptions about Eugene’s music scene?
Everyone assumes that there are only jam bands and hippie/psychedelic bands to see in this town, and that’s just not true. There’s a pretty solid punk and metal scene here.
There are a lot of good bands breaking new ground that are worth looking out for. A few of them have femme/women musicians leading the pack. It’s exciting!
While Eugene is growing more diverse, it’s still a pretty homogenous place. Can you talk a little about diversity issues in Eugene’s music scene?
A next-level scene in my eyes is more equitable and inclusive: more space taken up by femmes, queers, people-of-color and trans folks.
I try to create that space at the beginning of every set my band plays by making sure those who are marginalized know that they belong in that space and they deserve to take up just as much space as any dude in the room.
Music is one of those amazing mediums that bring people together for a purpose: to move and lift our voices together. Investing our dollars in local venues and artists is an act of community that we need to continue to engage in.
Eugene music is hard to pin down. It’s a cross between raspy buskers on the downtown streets backed by psychedelic waves of ambient rock n roll. It’s a weird mix for a weird place.
Owner and booker at Hi-Fi Music Hall. Age: 37.
Mike Hergenreter, owner and booker at Hi-Fi Music Hall, got into the music business by chance when he and his wife were considering career changes. “She asked me what I wanted to do,” Hergenreter recalls. “And I answered that, ‘I’d like to go on tour but without traveling so I can raise a family.’ She replied with ‘Sounds like you need to work at a music venue.’”
After paying his dues with several Eugene venues, Hergenreter, along with his partner Danny Kime, opened Hi-Fi Music Hall in downtown Eugene.
The business partners designed Hi-Fi’s multiple stages with artist development in mind. Their approach is to introduce local acts “on the more intimate lounge stage,” Hergenreter explains, getting the band to make return visits every six to eight weeks. “From there,” he continues, “we can sprinkle in a show supporting one of the larger national touring acts ’til they are ready to headline their own show in the main hall.”
What’s tough about developing local artists in Eugene?
The problem we face is there are so many good local bands and so many good touring bands that come to town. With Eugene only being a secondary market, it’s hard to support all the shows. The pro to this problem: We have a plethora of consistent high-quality entertainment to go to on a weekly basis.
What can Eugene’s music scene do to overcome its small size?
Eugene’s music scene always seems to be six months behind the major markets and will continue to, as it’s more difficult to spread what’s new and hip with a smaller population. Moving forward, we’ll continue to follow the trends, while trying to make our mark in the industry.
Music, just like other entertainment, brings tourism to our community and additional money to local businesses. Additionally, having a thriving music scene, locally and on a national level, carries a “cool factor” to our town. That can bring additional revenue.
Just like other industries, it’s all about development, which was the basis of our business plan for Hi-Fi Music Hall. To me, next level is consistently developing talent out of Eugene, touring the country with valid representation. At this point, we don’t have too many. But with the amount of quality musicianship locally right now, I see this happening.
Musician, record producer. Age: 52.
James Book had some moderate success in what he calls the “former” music business in the late ’90s when his band The Flys scored a one-hit-wonder with the song “Got You Where I Want You.” In 2009, Book relocated to Eugene from SoCal. He began producing records at Ninkasi Brewing Company as what Book describes as “a pillar of our marketing.”
Otherwise, Book says, he moved to Eugene to make “records, beer and offspring.”
With Ninkasi, Book has worked with artists from as far away as Dallas, Texas, but also with local artists such as Tyler Fortier, Marv Ellis and WE Tribe as well as local favorites from Portland, The Shook Twins. Ninkasi’s current “resident artist” is Neal Williams, bassist with popular Eugene band Gazelle(s).
“We recently tracked their new full-length at my buddies’ place in Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree, California, and we are mixing it in Eugene now,” Book says. “Ours is a cross-marketing approach. We try to support artists [to] meet their own goals and definitions of success, primarily in studio and through production support.”
Tell us about producing records in Eugene, Oregon?
Eugene is such an isolated scene that it makes for super creative musical experimentation, but at the same time can also be isolating for some artists that hope to expand out of the area. It can sometimes feel like you are stuck in a beautiful musical garden. The jam bands and post-reggae band stereotypes are arguably stigma. That may not always translate well outside of Cascadia, but I think both those genres and especially some of the bands we have in Eugene flying those flags are amazing.
How is technology changing music in Eugene?
Technology and even the notion of a musical “instrument” will continue to evolve while maintaining a consistent sense of “Eugene” culture and place.
I’d like to see [Eugene music] continue to head where it’s heading. It’s good to see live music attendances begin to grow again and especially in such a wide variety of musical micro-niches, thanks in no small part to new venues, [from] Hi-Fi’s ambitious booking approach to the solid standards like Black Forest. How cool is it that that place is still always free, but good bands also play there?
There are so many little musical movements happening at once here, and art is such an abundant part of everyday Eugene life. Living here is great, and Eugene is just enough of a “best kept secret” to make it continually alluring if you keep your ears open. The music trove in Eugene is probably as deep as one would dare to venture.