Cool Ghouls Photo: Daniel Johnston
When I sat down to talk with Pat McDonald, Pat Thomas, and Alex Fleshman of Cool Ghouls, a San Francisco-based band who came into play in 2011, Pat M (often referred to as “longhair Pat”) summed up the issue in one eloquent sentence: “Nobody really knows what the fuck they are talking about.”
A former start up employee and student of urban planning, he understands that the issue is the sum of a dozen different factors, offering a rounded point of view that goes well beyond, in his satirical words, the “Fuck nerds, rock and roll” mentality.
He explains, “If I answer complaint emails for Macy’s and made $14 an hour, no one would give a shit. The fact that I answer complaint emails for $14 an hour for a tech company, that makes all the difference. Every person, the entire staff here (at Zeitgeist), makes more money than I do. I bet you a bar back on a slow night makes more money than I do, or at least as much.”
Though he has since ended his employment with the company, he remains frustrated with the way tech workers are grouped into a single category. “Nobody thinks about these things,” he argues. “There’s one group of people and a lot of them are engineers, and they do work for places like Google or Apple or whatever, and they do make a shitload of money. But there are a lot of people who don’t make a lot of money, who make a middle class income, but it doesn’t matter. As long as you fall into the tech category, you’re the problem.”
There is a small but powerful (read: rich) group of people from the tech world who deign to live in the city, who followed the money here and see no excitement or wonder in the imperfect nature of San Francisco. It is the same group that gives all tech folks a bad name. Guys like Peter Shih (source: Uptown Almanac) and Greg Gopman, who took to their social media outlets and simultaneously insulted and pissed off an entire city of people, give tech workers a bad rap.
Cool Ghouls drummer Alex Fleshman points out, “One of the problems is that’s where jobs are. That is who’s hiring. So someone like you (Pat M), your ambition isn’t ‘I’m going to be in a start up!’ They were hiring and it was a good enough job, good enough pay that you could live on, so you had to take it. I’m sure a lot of people are in that situation. They are growing businesses, people need jobs.”
Pat Thomas (aka “shorthair Pat”) adds, “Because it’s such a sensational wave, people look at the tech thing as the problem.” Though he concedes that, within the greater tech wave, “There is a different wave, who aren’t moving to San Francisco to pursue other things. They only want to be a part of this whole tech thing.”
While so many people are struggling, working multiple jobs to afford living here, there are people who can only talk down on San Francisco with a sense of entitlement and a disdain for less fortunate residents. People who love this city are pissed, and quite honestly, the broader tech community should be pissed too. That’s not who all tech workers are. There is a world of a difference, and million dollars of funding, between Google and a five-member start up.
Joel Gion of Brian Jonestown Massacre – who has remains an ambassador of the neo-psychedelic movement of the 1990s through his new project, Joel Gion & the Primary Colours – captures the San Franciscan versus entitled tech worker argument perfectly, from a local point of view: “In my opinion, when anyone moves here from any place, for any situation or reason, and can’t see the beauty of its diverse culture and arts community as something to hold to their heart, they can fuck off.”
This group of people, the tech workers who came here strictly to follow money, is a serious point of tension among San Franciscans. Pat T describes, “Now that they’re here they have all these complaints about it…Twitter just happens to be here. That’s a point of contention for a lot of people in the city because a lot of people want SF to be their idea of SF. They have this idea of San Francisco, and these new transplants aren’t coming for that same city.”
For Cool Ghouls, San Francisco was always where they wanted to be, and they understand why the tech companies want to be here too. Alex explains, “The companies moved here for a reason. Because it’s San Francisco. It’s fucking San Francisco! It’s one of the most beautiful, cultured cities in the world. So the companies want to be here because it’s got an aura.”
Pat T calls it a romance. “SF is unique in the way that it exists in people’s imaginations,” he asserts. “People have an idea of SF even if they haven’t been here. It’s a very romanticized place, which keeps the cast of people constantly rotating.”
Michael Jirkovsky, 10-year San Francisco resident and drummer of the Bay Area band Social Studies, agrees. “This has been a city of transplants for decades. For a long time the attraction was a perceived belief system.” This perceived system, created in the minds of everyone who comes to the city for its energy, not money, is based on, as he describes it, “The notion that SF is a home for artists, musicians, progressive politics, the LGBT community, a cross section of diverse cultures, activists, folks interested in making the world a better place.” Michael admits, “That’s why I moved here.”
Like Alex, he understands that same thought process that brought him to the city is what inherently lies at core of the technology movement. He explains, “Even the initial tech movement was founded on many of these principals. One of Twitter’s founders was essentially an anti-capitalist, anarchist leaning dude. The early tech boom was largely in line with SF’s free spirit ethos until the money started pouring in. The new wave of transplants seems only attracted to the potential of large paychecks. I believe many of these folks would follow the dollar signs to any city. The pull has nothing to do with our city or its history. If the tech industry continues to grow at it’s current pace we risk losing much of what makes this city special.”
Tracing the Root of the Problem
The city’s free spirit ethos, as Michael puts it, is why so many artists move to the city to begin with. Which brings me to this: We are all the problem. We really are. Anyone who came to the Bay Area from somewhere else is part of this movement.
“SF exists as a place where people can come to be creative or do their thing,” Pat M argues. “That is gentrification. Regardless of how you cut it, it doesn’t matter if you write code or you’re a bar back. If you desired SF and you moved here from somewhere else, you’re part of the problem. Everyone has to acknowledge that.”
Every musician I interviewed, with the exception of local native Sam Chase, traveled to the Bay Area from another location. They came for the creative energy, the weirdos, the misfit culture. People come to this city and its surrounding areas with an idea of what San Francisco is and what it can offer them. So many people stay because after they came here as outsiders, they found something here to dig into. No one here is an outsider because everyone is.
Warm Soda frontman Matt Melton moved to Oakland in the mid-2000s because he saw something in the city that reflected his home. “I first moved to the Bay Area in 2006 from Memphis, TN,” he explains. “I picked Oakland as my home because something about it reminded me of things I loved about Memphis.”
Lead singer and guitarist of Burnt Ones, Mark Tester relocated here from Indianapolis in 2010 after being lured to the city by its arts and creative energy. “After a few years of visiting and touring through the city,” he explains. “I was constantly amazed by its artistic community, and just kind of the general vibe of the city.”
Bay Area resident of six years, Alex Gundlach – known to the psychedelic world as DJ Al Lover – explains, “The young bohemian cats move to the poor neighborhoods where they can live and make art cheaply, then all the yuppie followers come around and are bummed that they live in a poor area and decide to build it up. Which in effect raises property value and the poor folks get fucked, a lot of the time.”
While most young people who moved to SF don’t like to admit they are part of the problem, Pat T knows where he stands in the grand scheme of things. “I know I’m just like a lot of 20 years olds who moved here after college,” he admits. “But on the other hand I do feel this kind of allegiance to this place because I’m from the area. It does feel like home.”
Sam Chase, singer/songwriter and front-man of his own outfit, has had a love affair with the city his whole life, and he has continued to love it through so many different versions because he has learned to adapt to the city’s ever-changing social and economic landscape. “What SF offers a young kid is vastly different to what this city offers an adult years later, and growing up in San Francisco you learn to adapt to these changes very quickly,” he explains. “I was born in San Francisco and have pretty much lived here my whole life. The city I grew up in was obviously a very different city than it is now. Much of that was due to the economy, the ’89 quake, the dot-com boom, generational take overs, gentrification, cultural shifts and other general changes that happen over time, but also the city was very different to me because I was a very different person back then. Once I grew up, I realized that I was leaving that city behind and about to experience an entirely different San Francisco.”
He has an analogy for what its like to be a native: “San Francisco is my home, and I have been watching people move into my home and rearrange the furniture over and over my whole life. I am pretty used to it. I am also used watching these people get really angry every time someone new comes in and moves the sofa from the living room into the foyer. To them, they had made my home into their home, and they moved everything into place to fit their needs and comfort. What many of these people don’t understand is that there was a very different looking home before they came in and moved that sofa into the living room in the first place.”
Sam understands that people make a home for themselves here, because there is truly something for everyone. “I appreciate how much people love this city and how much these transplants call this city their own,” he says. “They bring new life, culture and excitement into SF and it is great to see. We all live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and are so fortunate to be able to have a time in our lives where we have found someplace where we feel we truly belong.” On the other hand, he sees that fact – the fact that people do get so attached to their version of San Francisco – as another point of tension.
“With such strong feelings of ownership can also come heated territorial battles over place, culture, class, tradition, and whether or not Divisadero needs another craft cocktail bar where the family owned smokehouse used to be,” he explains. “Many of these battles are trite, some are worthy, most are pointless. People don’t like change when they finally come to the realization that their wonderful little home is actually a booming metropolitan city.”
Elliott Kiger, drummer for The Spyrals and resident of San Francisco since 2001, agrees, “This seems to be the way San Francisco is, for better or worse. Boom and bust. Up and down. Every boom destroys something while creating another. This isn’t a new problem, San Francisco has been a dick to its middle class for a while now. From parking tickets to housing issues, it’s pretty clear the city government doesn’t have a clue. The tech thing is just magnifying it. Oh, and Ed Lee, too. He’s a bumble-fuck.”
The Local Government
While so much of the blame is put on the actual tech workers who are coming to the Bay Area, and yes, people who move to San Francisco for any motive, even creative ones, are part of the problem, there cannot be a conversation about the state of San Francisco without a critique of the local government.
The reality of San Francisco as an expensive city is nothing new, but because the current wave of tech workers is so driven by money, housing prices are skyrocketing way passed record height. Mark argues, “The distribution of wealth in this city is so insanely out of proportion as it is, but now that all this privileged, young, tech-money is coming in droves they have been able to completely skew the housing market and the price of everything, really,” he continues. “And the city is totally bending over for them, it’s pathetic.”
Al agrees, “I think the finger need to be pointed most at local politicians and property owners who are allowing this rent thing to get out of control. It’s a big product of any bubble like this but these people are more concerned with making a profit then the well being of the residents of our city and that to me is some shameful shit.”
Pat M, backed by his urban planning education, breaks it down with a history lesson: “In the US, from WWII to ten years ago maybe, the urban core, whether in SF or NY or whatever city, was rotting or decaying, and that’s where poor people lived. Everybody else – middle and upper class – lived in the suburbs. Now those people are coming back to the cities so people don’t know what to do. The city doesn’t know what to do to take those people back in without fucking over the people who were already there, who don’t have a lot of money. It’s kind of like making a switch. Poor people you can find on the outskirts, in places like Vallejo or Antioch, and Excelsior, Hunters Point, Daily City. Then in places like the Mission people are paying like $8,000 for two bedrooms.”
The affordability crisis, he argues, is magnified in San Francisco not only because of the tech wave, but also because of the lack of vacancy control in San Francisco. “It’s never too late to consider something like vacancy control, or just for people to even think about that concept, of limiting how much a property owner can raise rent for the sake of keeping the rental market equitable,” he argues, though he admits its not as easy as that. “There’s a fine line too because theres a point where a property owner can claim that their rights are being infringed on when they can’t acquire the value that their property can provide, but at the same time, some kind of control would benefit a lot of people. It doesn’t have to be necessarily anything extreme to start off with, but just something. Something needs to be done. And now because a hit load of people can’t afford to live here, they’re going to head to places like Oakland, and there are going to be people in Oakland who get priced out.”
Without vacancy control, the city is quickly becoming unaffordable for its entire middle class. If housing costs continue to rise at the same rate – average rent for a two-bedroom apartment hit $3,875 in June, with median cost of an apartment just under $3,400 (a 21% increase from 2012) – San Francisco will only have room for the young, tech-centric elite class that has already begun to dilute the city’s deep cultural diversity.
“It needs to be multi-cultural,” Alex argues. “It can’t exist for one type of people.”
“It’s pretty sad,” Jeff Lewis, lead singer and guitarist of The Spyrals, agrees. “There’s so much money and greed that the average people are getting stepped on. The typical musician doesn’t really stand a chance up against the level of income that someone working for a tech company can bring in.”
The tech-centric attitude that Ed Lee has exuded, from the Twitter tax breaks to his “Tech Tuesday” meet and greets, has fostered San Francisco’s new position as the face of the tech industry. It has encouraged not only the rising cost of living, but the development of luxury housing and the gross spike in Ellis Act evictions, and as a result, it has left those who operate outside of the tech realm on the outside looking in on a one-note San Francisco.
A Tech-Centric City
Joel begs the question that inspired this article, and so many others like it: “When most artists have to spend all their time working jobs and can’t afford to take the time to create, what kind of world will it be?”
Since Mark came to the city, on top of making two (almost three!) Burnt Ones records, he has taken on various forms of employment at places like corner stores, thrift stores and a record pressing plant, to meet the cost of living. “There’s no way I could ever afford rent here off of what Burnt Ones makes, just absolutely no way. I can usually just barely pay my rent and pay for groceries and spend the rest of my time recording for free, so I make it by,” he describes. “That’s just the reality that I have to deal with – biding time between being able to work on music and being forced to work a job if I want to live here. If I were to lose my apartment, though, or get Ellis-acted like my roommate did, I would definitely have to move.”
Elliott faces a similar struggle of balancing money making and music making with The Spyrals. “The housing thing is a real issue. And not just within the musician community,” he argues. “It’s tough trying to earn enough of a living and still have the flexibility to tour and deal with that side of your being. I sometimes think I have spit personalities because of it.”
Even Sonny Smith, a Bay Area resident since the mid-1990s and a mainstay in the San Francisco music scene with his band Sonny & the Sunsets, has had to move out of the city. “Cost of rent is ridiculous,” he explains. “I’m living outside the city, in a housesitting situation.” Although he is the only artist I spoke with who isn’t holding one or a few jobs to get by, he admits, “I’ve scraped by the last couple years on music but basically I’ve always had other jobs. Probably will again any day now.”
While the dire affordability situation has penetrated the spirit of Bay Area, the energy of the artists and music makers, there is hope within the music community that the economic storms we’re in can be alleviated.
“There’s work to be done on a political level. Voting in local elections is key,” Michael asserts. “Our culture can be preserved by enforcing and expanding renter’s rights, building affordable housing and ceasing the massive tax holidays some of these tech companies have been awarded. Ed Lee has been disastrous and must be replaced with a progressive mayor.”
A Shifting Spotlight
Beyond the affordable housing problem, the tech takeover and new wave of San Franciscans has resulted in a different crowd, one that isn’t necessarily focused on what is happening in rock and roll realm of the Bay Area. Consequently, the effects of the technology takeover are being felt within the local music community in a way that transcends money.
“Most of the people that are moving here and making all the money don’t give a shit about your art show or your band. Some that live near venues are trying to shut them down, like what Brick & Mortar was having to deal with,” Mark explains, recalling an incident back in May when Brick & Mortar Music Hall was temporarily shut down, without proper public notice, due to noise complaints.
“Its kind of sad,” Pat T admits. “This year especially. Last year when we were doing our thing and the year before, it felt like we were in the middle of this thriving thing. Slowly this year, it’s been feeling a little bit more sleepy.” He also brought up Brick & Mortar, a true staple in the local music scene, where his friend Barry works as a booker. “He books this event at Brick & Mortar called Fuzz Box that showcases garage acts. He tells me it’s getting harder and harder to book people for these shows whereas a year ago it was so easy. Just locally, there aren’t as many people coming up the pipe as there were last year.”
On top of less bands in the scene, he explains, “The turn out isn’t as robust I think this time of the year last year. That’s the other thing about this influx of people working in the tech industry – not to lump this whole industry together – the interests are different, these aren’t night life people. These people are working 16 hour days, they’re not going to go out. They have the money, but its a matter of interest.”
Along with the influx of residents who aren’t particularly interested in local rock and roll, the steady exodus of bands relocating to places like Los Angeles has contributed to the general perception that things in the San Francisco music scene are slowing down. The departure of Ty Segall and John Dwyer – two of the Bay Area’s key rock and roll players over the last decade – is a sure enough sign that the music scene here is shifting. While losing those artists is a hit to the musical community, their exit from the scene doesn’t signal the death of San Francisco music, only the ending of one wave, one trend.
Mark and Burnt Ones came to San Francisco at a time when garage rock was dominating the local music scene. While many people ran with the idea of a garage rock movement happening in the Bay Area, Mark sees the grouping together of bands under an umbrella term to be part of the problem. He asserts, “I think the homogenization of the whole ‘San Francisco sound’ thing that was hyped by the blogosphere a few years back (that was basically just applied to six or seven bands, that didn’t really sound too much alike besides being arguably lo-fi and rock bands) was a pretty big hit to a lot of people making music in the city.”
On top of “spawning a ton of short-lived copy-cat bands,” he argues that it both hindered the development of bands trying to do something different, and made people try different things for the wrong reasons. “I also feel like it left a lot of people struggling to find their place or got people to start doing things differently out of defiance, instead of as an experimental or creative pursuit, to mixed results,” he argues. “There are definitely a handful of bands in the Bay Area that I think are doing amazing things,” he says before conceding, “but for the most part I can’t say that to me many people seem to really be interested in making music that’s interesting around here, and instead rely on treading groundwork that’s already been laid for them by other people, which is all well and good if that’s what you want to do.”
This carbon-copy garage band trend that Mark noticed in the city mirrors a new trend, one that also stems from Ty and John and their decisions to flip the switch and move to LA.