San Diego's indie rock pedigree didn't start with early-'90s bands like Rocket from the Crypt, Lucy's Fur Coat, Fluf and the like. It was a group of largely unsung acts that reigned for a few years in the early '80s that paved the way for alternative accolades and bidding wars a decade later.
It was the birth of San Diego's DIY movement. A group of garage-rock and mod-inspired bands loosely centered on all-ages venues like UCSD's Ché Café, which opened in 1982. Bands like The Answers, Hair Theater, Noise 292, the Rockin' Dogs, The Wallflowers, Everybody Violet, The Tell-Tale Hearts, The Gravedigger V, The Morlocks and Manual Scan. Together and on their own, they would nurture a wildly diverse but supportive underground scene—and go largely unnoticed by most mainstream rock press, even in their own city.
Twenty-five years later, the retroactively named Ché Underground is finally getting some of the attention—and recognition—it deserves.
Noise 292's Matt Roethenberg launched ChéUnderground.com less than two years ago; since then, the archival resource for galleries, blogs, postings, questions, answers and forums devoted to Ché-era bands has become surprisingly popular.
That popularity has led to the Ché Underground Weekend Showcase at The Casbah—a venue that didn't even exist at the time the bands first started—which will include many of the re-formed bands of the time.
Looking back on those days, Ray Brandes says his band, The Tell-Tale Hearts, “were purists. We were going for a total look and sound of purely garage-rock '60s music. We were real garage musicians in the sense that we were music fans first. There wasn't a trained musician among us. But we were trying to emulate the records we loved as faithfully as possible.”
Noise 292's Roethenberg mentioned his band's “obvious love of the Velvet Underground” as a sort of jumping-off point for experimentation.
“We also stole from Joy Division's nod to the electronic and industrial trends, too,” he says. “We were pretty far afield, actually. We wanted to think of ourselves as roots-rock, but it's nothing near that, really.
“We just knew we were supposed to be roots to be punk, I guess.”
Kristi Maddocks was the rebellious daughter of an affluent yet broken family in Del Mar. By the time she fronted Everybody's Violet, she was a veteran of the hardcore-punk shows that came to town. The Che's softer, artier crowds were more easygoing.
“The scarier shows back then were at the Lion's Den and Wabash Hall,” she recalls. “Wabash was always like a nightmare club. Ché Cafe shows were like pussycat shows compared to them.”
Diversity and support—not always in large supply in the bigger-city scenes like L.A. or New York City—were the norm in underground San Diego, however.
The Ché Café shows “were melting pots most of the time,” says multi-affiliated, multi-instrumentalist Dave Fleminger.
“Live shows were a method of communication in the sense that, otherwise, you may have never heard the band any other way. Maybe they had a cassette that they handed out; even less often, they actually had a piece of vinyl.
“Usually, if you wanted to hear a band, you went and saw them play.”
Manual Scan founder Bart Mendoza went on to play in The Shambles and has had a prolific career as music writer well versed in local history. He tries to keep his connection to the story in context.
“The surprise has been, now, what it means 25 years later,” he says. “There's so much feedback to us now. We're getting e-mails from London, from New York, from Montreal—we've got people who are coming out for the show. It's really satisfying.”
Mendoza says he's sure of one thing:
“It proves it: Grassroots works. It really does work to do it yourself. And I think you can still see that to this day in San Diego.”
Roethenberg agrees, but his take on the era's appeal is slightly different. For him, it's more form than function at work.
“There's something crucial about the stuff we created, pre-digital: Making stuff by hand made it so special,” he says, choosing his words more carefully on this topic. “There's something so tactile about the homemade process. People used to hand-paint their own covers. It's a treasure now to share that.”
Roethenberg is humble and proud of his website's role in catalyzing the comeback. “We're getting 8,000 people a month visiting the website's gallery collections of these things,” he laughs. “We would have killed for this technology if we'd had access, so there's that irony.
“It's so exciting to see this attention we would never have imagined then.”
While Rothenberg claims to have “cast a intentionally wide net” when inviting the bands to play the reunion shows, he's shocked that almost all are still on the bill and scheduled to make the journey back.
“We were sure half would drop out by show time,” he says.
Fleminger has been integral to several of the bands, rehearsing long-distance to prepare. The self-described “obsessive recorder and producer and archivist of everyone involved” says his role in the whirlwind of activity surrounding the musicians lately is satisfying.
His advice to the next generation of underground locals:
“Document yourself—you will be glad you did. Even if what comes out of it might be a little embarrassing at times, the message may reach somebody who needs to hear it.”The Che Underground shows will happen Friday and Saturday, May 29 and 30, at The Casbah. www.cheunderground.com.