It's hard not to notice that during the last year and a half, Tulsa's local music movement has taken on a new life. Sure, the old stalwarts are still hammering away: The Plumbers, Imzadi and Snapdragon continue to draw the covers crowd; Red Dirt and Honky Tonk still have The Rangers, Boland and LaRue as well as a new breed in the likes of Brandon Clark Band, South 40 and Turnpike Troubadours; and the pop and rock crowd still has MWK, Admiral Twin and Steve Liddell. But the vibes, they are a'changin'.
There's no doubt this town has talent--witness the continual mining of the area by Hollywood and the likes of "American Idol" which just can't get enough of Tulsa-based and Oklahoma bred performers.
Although there are still a plethora of emo and screamo bands bandying about, the underground scene has been blossoming with a new breed of imaginative and eclectic new "indie" acts, most of which seem intent on pushing boundaries and making their own statements.
With that movement a handful of new venues have emerged or adapted and few have even run their course and closed (R.I.P. Mooch & Burn), but mostly what we've been witnessing is an arguable rebirth of Tulsa's local music community. And it's not just the indie bands--the creative flux has also overflowed into other genres, seeing more commercial and hard rock bands expand their palettes, ala My Solstice and Congress of a Crow.
What's to explain this phenomena and the inventiveness of the new breed? I figured the answer would be best found by stepping into the midst of the activity and picking from among the most promising of the young newcomers. Black Swan, for instance, a band that's been floating around Tulsa under the radar for a little more than a year now, is poised to become the next big thing.
Gathered around a table in a local bookstore coffee shop, the members of Black Swan appear to be just another group of friends hanging out, much like any other band. Spend some time talking with them, however, and they also prove a theory that I've held for quite some time now, that the members of most successful bands not only share a common vision, but also fill different roles in attaining it.
No, I'm not talking about the obvious: bass, guitar, drum positions in a band. On an extended level, the players also fill different responsibilities and characteristics to balance the group. On that level, Black Swan is something of a character study.
Guitarist/vocalist Sam Alexander tends to fill the role of primary spokesperson during the course of the conversation, thoughtfully considering his words. Jeremy Louis, who also plays guitar and sings backing vocals appears the laid back, jovial soul of the group. Bassist Wes Johnson is soft-spoken, speaking up and answering succinctly when he's got an opinion or viewpoint to share. Keyboardist Joe Page is content to sit back and take it all in, adding his input when addressed or when he sees something being overlooked.
And drummer Jon Van Patten? Well, if you're familiar with "That 70's Show," he's the Steven Hyde of the group. Not only does he bear a slight resemblance to Danny Masterson, but he's also sarcastic, slightly antagonistic, and more knowing than he lets on at first. And while there's definitely a creative energy among band members, it's not hard to imagine that he's the sparkplug of the group that makes everything come together.
Lumped into the "indie rock" category of the local music scene, Black Swan has a distinctly more pop edge than what most people associate with the overall indie movement.
Although the band does have an ethereal quality to its music, as displayed by singles like "Temporary" and "Carpathia," there is also an attention to song structure and melody that many others in the category tend to dismiss. And while not as over the top as local contemporaries like GHOSTS, the band definitely has strong pop sensibilities.
When discussing the Black Swan's music and the indie movement in Tulsa, the band definitely has its own take on the term.
"We've decided it means just a melding of genres," Johnson explained.
Alexander continued the thought, adding "We're not, like, experimental rock, but we do want to be pushing the envelope..."
" . . . within the pop format," Van Patten followed, completing the thought. "I would say its kind of a dark 'indie pop' with maybe a little more subtlety."
"I'd even go so far as saying were not trying to be indie," concluded Johnson, drawing agreement from the rest of the band.
Van Patten went on to explain "I think when we say indie, though we're referring to . . . Well, obviously, we're independent in the literal sense, financially, but we're the opposite of the mainstream rock thing going on---which has been going on in Tulsa for a long time. We're definitely not that, so I think we associate it with indie because that's the only other thing to call it."
"You've got two choices: mainstream or indie," Alexander concluded, with Johnson adding "You can be derivative or you can try to be a little bit more original."
"Yeah," Alexanader agreed. "Our main criteria when we're writing is, we're constantly checking ourselves: Does this sound good?"
" . . . and does it sound like anyone else?" Van Patten continued.
"You can't help but be influenced and, I guess, pay homage to someone that came before you," Johnson went on.
"But even the greatest artists in the world copy and 'steal' from each other," Alexander continued. "Basically, you have to own something and we want to make sure that everything we do, we own that and it sounds like us."
"And thus far . . . we're failing," Alexander concluded, with a pause and a group laugh, "but everybody starts somewhere."
That's how the conversation continued during the course of the evening. Even though everyone has a distinct personality, all of the pieces make a whole, with each member contributing and completing each other's thoughts. It's not surprising then, to find out that even the writing process is a completely cooperative and democratic process, with everyone contributing to the songs.
Where It Started
The band began when Alexander and Page started playing together informally in high school. Once in college, Louisiana native Louis entered the fold and eventually, Alexander called on Wes Johnson, with whom he had played bass in a high school jazz band.
From there, the guys played coffee shops and a few club gigs in a band that they all agree was "nothing memorable" and eventually rented a house together, after which their drummer departed. As a result, the four kept jamming at home for a few months without a drummer.
Van Patten is arguably the most recognizable member of the group, due to his time in the local group Utica.
After playing around Tulsa and breaking up, that group reassembled in Dallas for roughly a three-year period before dissolving and going their separate ways. A couple months after moving back to Tulsa in early 2006, Van Patten came in contact with Alexander, Johnson and Page, whom he knew from high school.
As the conversations continued, music ensued Van Patten eventually brought his drums to the house and, as he expressed it, they were "mutually impressed with where it was going." So, he joined the band, which eventually took on the moniker Black Swan.
"It's too much of a democracy at times," Van Patten interjected, inspiring another group laugh. "Sometimes we don't make progress because we're constantly trying to make sure everyone else is pleased with everything, but I think ultimately we get our sound because, individually, we play our musical convictions: where we come from. The only reason it works is because we know how to blend it together and we do meet in the middle."
"It's very much like what Wes said. It is a democracy and we all contribute equally in different ways," he continued. "There's not one person who writes a song that's like 'OK, I want you to play that drum beat.' We really do come from our own corners and I think that's exactly why we all love playing together. It's because we mutually respect each other."
"And honestly," Johnson added, "if it didn't work as well as it did, with everybody contributing, then I don't think any of us would be a part of it. But it's been too good to get away from."
No Place Like Home
As the discussion turned to the local music scene, Alexander observed "It used to be like: 'OK guys, we'll work hard here and then we've got to move someplace else,' because even nine or 10 months ago, the indie music scene wasn't nearly as supportive or as awesome as it is now."
"There are so many bands in Tulsa right now that are actually good and that we're friends with," Alexander continued. "There's Callupsie and Here Is There and GHOSTS and Elliot the Letter Ostrich and all these bands that are doing something original and I think the whole feeling that I'm sure each one of them has that 'we've got to get out of Tulsa at some point' is fading. You start to take a look back and say 'maybe we can do something here,' you know? Maybe we'll be the next Omaha or Seattle."
" . . . And there is a lot of talk about that," Van Patten said, expanding on the thought. "If you talk to a lot of our friends--we have friends that aren't musicians, but they write or they're trying to do things with film and they have the same kind of hope. There is stuff going on in Tulsa, but it's the first time it's been like that in a long time. It's literally growing and it's cool that we're all friends, because it really is a kind of special and unique thing."
Also holding a special place in the heart of the band is the currently emerging group Cecada, which was instrumental in supporting Black Swan when the band first started playing.
Cecada proves to be a prime example of the sense of community within the current indie scene. Instead of competing with each other, they are supporting each other, sharing shows and encouraging their fans to check out other music as well.
Looking back, we briefly discussed Van Patten's time in Utica and how the local music scene has evolved. Instead of an influx of bands all chasing the same trend (at the time, emo), as is the pattern in Tulsa, the current crop of indie bands are all their own unique entities, creating new sounds and styles.
"Ultimatley, as much as I loved being in Utica at the time, this to me is so much more creative and enjoyable," says Van Patten. "So far as the scene goes, maybe even three or four years ago, to me it's just totally different."
As a whole, the group credits much of the change and openness to original music to a handful of venues that have really opened their doors to new music, mentioning The Soundpony, Under the Mooch, Mooch and Burn and even the new venue, Monilith.
"I believe Soundpony is pivotal in the scene right now," Alexander said. "They stepped up and they were one of the main reasons people started coming out to shows, because they were always free. People were like 'Well, I might as well go to Soundpony, all my friends are going to be there' and then all these bands started playing . . . "
Also integral to the current original music movement is Under the Mooch, the local record store that also hosts free shows in its close quarters. Even with the cramped space of both venues, and other intimate venues like the Continental, the bands aren't just playing to a crowd of uninterested drinkers. They are actually building fans--perhaps partially because they feel so close (literally) and interconnected with the music.
"I think there's a slow hum in Tulsa that there are things happening," said Van Patten. "People are into it and people are excited about it and people are starting to talk about it."
"After DFest last year?" Alexander interjected. "I mean--that was amazing. Tulsa's really stepping up to the plate."
"In my opinion," Van Patten continued, "a lot of it can be tied into Tulsa starting to do more urban renewal things. People are enjoying coming to downtown. The fact that there's music and other things happening--to me, that's part of the reason why the urban renewal thing is popular, because there are galleries down there and people are starting to open up shops and it's all cohesive, you know?"
"I think the main part of it is the fact that a lot of this is happening together at the same time and it's more diverse than the music scene was three or four years ago," Alexander clarified. "I think the big factor in this new scene is that it's pulling a lot of new people in. It's not just about bands and audiences. It's about . . . (take for example) Tulsa Overground; they had a great show for bands and it was combining film and music."
"I have friends who are authors, who are trying to write novels," he continued. "They are coming out to shows and we're talking and discussing art and books and music and all this stuff . . . It's reaching into all these areas--it's not just music."
Even within the music movement, there's a diversity that is different than what we've seen previously, according to Van Patten, "Everybody is doing their own thing; nobody's trying to be anybody else. Everybody is doing something different and to me, that's one of the main characteristics of why things are happening the way they are.
"Because there is a lot of diversity in the different bands, that gives people confidence that there are people doing special things in Tulsa. People are starting to be proud that they're from Tulsa because of what's happening right now."
Ultimately, that's what inspires Black Swan to keep progressing and exploring its angular, ethereal take on pop music.
"Seeing this all come together--it spurs us on because we want to be a part of it," Alexander expressed succinctly as the rest of the members agreed.
Discontent with riding the current wave in Tulsa, Black Swan truly is one of the movers and shakers in the crop of local bands. As a follow up to its debut EP, which was released quietly, the band is preparing to enter Ergopop Studios (run by Costa of Straight Lines) to record a full length follow up. Afterward, Black Swan has no intention of moving from Tulsa, but the band does look forward to doing some regional touring and expanding its reach, possibly with a couple more Tulsa bands.
"I'd like to change the perception that other cities have of Tulsa," expressed Johnson. "I'm doing most of the managing so whenever I try to book an out of town show, it can be really tough, because (the clubs) are like 'Where are you from?' and it doesn't matter how good you are in Tulsa."
"I work at the Soundpony on weekends," he continued, "and people will be saying 'Oh, this band's coming from Austin or this band's from Lawrence,' or Chicago or Fayetteville or wherever and there's a weight that comes with it. I want to change that perception about Tulsa."
"Helping the scene, to me, is a big goal," Alexander concluded, "because that benefits all of us and that's one way to get Tulsa (back) on the map. It's not just music, but go to YouTube and look at this video and all of this other stuff. And thanks to the internet, that stuff is so possible."
Although the band has been laying low for the past few months while spending some time in the studio, you can catch Black Swan (along with about a dozen of their friends and contemporaries) this weekend at The Continental as part of the Hard Work Weekend showcase. Tickets are only $7 per night or $10 for a weekend pass and the opportunity to experience what's really stirring the Tulsa music and arts scene.
Black Swan will take the stage Saturday night at 10:15pm, but you'll want to settle in for the weekend to experience the cream of Tulsa's indie-rock crowd, including Callupsie, Elliot the Letter Ostrich, GHOSTS, Wighead, I Said Stop!, Stevedore and more. Finally, the idea of local bands making a national impact and not leaving Tulsa is more possible than ever before because they're working together and the local indie and arts scene is beginning to thrive because of that loyalty.
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