Five years ago you couldn’t buy a used flannel shirt in America for under $10, so pervasive was the effect of Seattle’s grunge manifesto. But thrift stores are full of those same threadbare garments once again, and the trendy tides that wash over the music industry have suddenly shifted south to a most unlikely shore…the dreamy seaside hamlet of Santa Barbara, Calif.
Previously known as that sun-drenched Shangri-la 100 miles north of L.A., where MOR vets like Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins had gone to work on their tans, Santa Barbara had until last spring fostered only two successful contemporary rock acts: Toad the Wet Sprocket and Ugly Kid Joe. But in the span of two weeks this past June, local boys Dishwalla finally made a big splash with their single ”Counting Blue Cars,” Primitive Radio Gods surfaced after five years of semiretirement with ”Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand,” and two other bands were signed to major label deals.
Perhaps fittingly, no town could be more unlike Seattle than Santa Barbara — and not just because it never rains. Where Seattle’s bands all yelled grunge, Santa Barbara bands sing, shout, or whisper whatever they feel like, man. The new signings include Summercamp, a poppy quartet scooped up by Maverick, SNOT, a hard-rock band landed by Geffen, and folkie Cory Sipper, whose indie debut on nu.milennia will include cameos by Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood.
According to industry insiders, labels were not responding to any kind of incessant buzz about Santa Barbara. Says Wendy Goldstein, A&R director of Geffen, ”It was just a weird irony that they all got signed in the same month.” Indeed, Dave Young, who manages both Dishwalla and Summercamp, refers to the town of 80,000 as ”the anti-scene,” a cozy nest where talent can develop away from the too-cool scrutiny of Seattle or the Sunset Strip. But, notes Young, that could change: ”I have literally had A&R people call me and ask what the next Santa Barbara band is gonna be, because they want one on their trophy shelf.”
For Santa Barbara’s musicians, who have played along the town’s fabled State Street, the June swoon was long overdue, and they’ve spent the summer savoring their success. Dishwalla bassist Scot Alexander remembers how he felt when Primitive Radio Gods took the stage just after his band at the Endfest, an annual alternative-music romp held Aug. 3 in, of all places, Seattle. ”I was really proud,” Alexander says. ”Those were my bros up there.”