Right Place, Right Time: Conversations about Geography and Community in DIY Music

The conversation that this article is based on took place in March of 2018. This article is the first half of a longer work, after this, check out part 2.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, there is a bar called The Bends. The front of the bar looks like a Caribbean cruise director decorated his basement, and then left it to the elements where it was defaced by teenagers with graffiti. Nevertheless, it was filled with trendy, hipster-looking 20-somethings drinking Tecate and tequila. In the back, three young men are setting up their instruments for the headlining set.

The tallest of the men, Stratton Roberts, has a wavy, grown-out Beatles bowl cut and is a spitting image of Rob Reiner (circa Meathead on “All in the Family”). He is wearing worn out Toms, an oversized “Skagway, Alaska” crew neck sweatshirt, and cloth pants that stop just below his calves. He finds his cables, plugs them from his Orange bass guitar amp into a tuner and a Big Muff. When Stratton begins his part of the soundcheck, David Bowie’s “Modern Love” is playing, and after he speaks and shouts “Check!” at a varied degree of volumes, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” is belting out of the PA system. Danny, the guitarist, checks his mic with vocal swings in pitch reminiscent of Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse. Tim, the drummer, checks the volume of the microphone placed in front of his bass drum with a series of solid stomps onto the bass pedal. After a considerable amount of fiddling on their respective instruments, Tim approaches the mic again. He slurs out, “Alright, we’re MTVH1N1.”

A week before this I was sitting at my desk, scrolling through Facebook and Bandcamp to find a good local show to attend while in Tampa, Florida for a conference. Active in the Grand Rapids scene, I wanted to look over the fence; to see what shade the grass was, and what they did to it to make it that way. From the internet it looked like Tampa had been invaded by studded-jean-jacket-wearing men in their 30’s and 40’s with too much time on their hands whom no one ever told that their cover band’s original songs weren’t any good. Search after search yielded band names like “Spectral Blood” and “Sick Hot” (among others), whose tracks ranged from surprisingly good power-violence to poorly recorded, poorly mixed dad-rock.

Not being very keen on getting on with either of these extremes, I talked to a friend, who referred me to a national Facebook group, where I eloquently posted the message, “Anyone have DIY connections in Tampa FL?” Responses trickled in over the course of a few hours, with advice to check out Lucky You Tattoo Shop and What We Live For Studios. An hour later someone commented the name “Stratton Roberts.” I clicked on his profile, we exchanged messages. I told him I would be in the area and I was looking for a show to go to and someone to talk to about Tampa DIY music culture. He told me that his band was playing on Friday and he would be free beforehand. After a week, two planes, and a ten-minute Uber ride (in which I learned that the Cuban Sandwich was invented in Tampa in its cigar factory days), I find myself sitting across from Stratton in Ybor City behind a coffee shop called The Bunker.

He leads me to the sitting area behind the coffee shop, and I set up my recorder, a Tascam DR-05. “The last band I was in used to use that to record our album,” he said. “We’d put it up in a sock and hang it—the only thing is you can’t mix the individual parts, you have to make sure your sound is perfect.” In Stratton’s previous band, Swept, the band leader would experiment with placement of the recorder to find the sweet spot. “I wasn’t opposed to it, it turned out well, I just didn’t know.”

Stratton is polite and laid back. He’s also what you could call an underemployed twenty-something college graduate, but he paints a different picture of how he went from studying literature to his current life. “The way Literature Studies has moved and morphed, well, the book itself has its own life, and you can’t connect the author, or anything else to it. Which I think is fine,” Stratton says, with a resigned inflection. He thinks it is a slippery slope in the classroom to have classes dedicated to debating student interpretations, because some students say the first thing that comes into their mind. He’d rather engage with the professor to acquire their insight and wisdom. “But a lot of it was not like that. A lot of it was listening to a bunch of kids go back and forth. I imagine at the graduate level, there’s maybe less nonsense and it’s a little more to the point, I also was like, I’d rather just try to play music, and not even… care, I don’t really care much about this.” He laughs.

He didn’t finish college with a particularly good view of it. “I realized this weird intellectual superiority complex that we get in college, that ‘we’re smarter than the blue-collar people’ thing. After I graduated I started working at this factory, and while partially I understood why that was the case, because they’d ask me how to spell the simplest words and their sentence structure was terrible—reading their emails was impossible—but if I had a car problem they would be able to fix it on the spot. They’d say, ‘oh I can fix it, just grab me a case of beer or something.’”  

While they thought of Stratton as inherently superior because of his degree, he was thinking the opposite. “I was like…I’m not that smart, compared to y’all. But in the university, that’s what they do. They have this feeling, that ‘I’m smarter than you, so…’ I really didn’t like that, and it soured on me more and more. But it’s ingrained in it now, it’s a part of it. I could’ve gone to tech school to gain a skill, learn how to fix a car.”

“I have a lot of friends that are blue collar, and like, sure I might be able to read a book and write a good essay about it, but at the end of the day, car problems are a lot more prevalent than needing an essay about a book. What happens when a hurricane comes through and I need work done on my house? I have to hire someone, I can’t fix it. They can. To me, that seems pretty valuable.”

Stratton has been out of school for two years now, lives in Seminole Heights (a neighborhood famous for being voted best for families and porch sitters, while also being host to a two-headed alligator and the site of 4 crime scenes attributed to an accused serial killer—just a handful of the eccentricities of the area). He has moved on from the factory to work odd jobs in between tours with his band.

In 2013, Vice published an article titled “Stop Talking Crap About the Florida Music Scene.” The gist of the article is that while Florida is guilty of producing some terrible artists—predominantly “boy bands, cock rock, and Jimmy Buffett,”—there is a whole lot of good stuff there now.

Stratton has caught flak for his Floridian roots all over the country. “You go to different places and you hear different things. You go to one place and they say ‘oh, Florida is just a bunch of reggae bands.’ You go to another and they say, ‘oh, Florida is just a bunch of pop punk.’” But he agrees with the article in spirit, with a caveat. “We have a lot of stuff here, but I will agree, a lot of the stuff is…awful. You have to sift through a lot more trash here than probably most places.” I told him about a show I had found at Mermaid Tavern for a terrible rock band earlier in the week. “Yeah, there’s a lot of that here. Like I said, maybe more than most places. I don’t want to come off as pretentious, but…For the most part, if there’s a certain show at a certain place, you can look at it and kind of know what it is.”

One cause that he attributes this to is geography. Florida is in the corner of the U.S. map, it’s America’s Armpit. Unless a touring band has multiple stops and guaranteed crowds in the state, they’re going to skip past it altogether. “When you get touring bands, you get bookers that think, ‘well now I’ve got to put locals with these touring bands coming through,’ and that’s how people meet each other, and then the local opening band knows the touring band, and they go on tour together, then the names are all over the place. That’s the essence of a tight-knit community. But when those touring bands don’t come around that often, it breaks those links.”

The geography is such an issue that the only band in recent memory to reach mainstream success is Merchandise. The noise-punk influenced pop band, according to Stratton, reached the popularity that they did only because of their habit of perpetually touring, and that their touring habit lead to them making connections with other touring national acts, which lead to some of them following Merchandise back to Florida for a couple shows.

“Suddenly Tampa is on the map. The thing is though, as this all happened, no one around Tampa outside of their friend group knew who they were.” They hosted their own shows at a rented space they called The Unit, but no one outside of their friend group knew anything about it, or had a clear way to find out about it.”

It didn’t matter. Merchandise’s key to success lied in their ability to make connections in larger cities and scenes. Support for them continued to grow nationally.

“It’s weird living in Tampa and having them getting all these write ups—they’re getting Pitchfork write ups, they’re getting Stereogum write ups, they’re getting Vice write ups—so I’m thinking ‘okay, I can do this from here. I don’t have to move out to LA or whatever, I can do it from here.’ But also you realize, no one is paying attention to Tampa from a publication standpoint, or a label standpoint. They’re not trying to look to see what’s coming out of Tampa, whereas they are doing that in New York and LA. So to catch their attention you have to go out, like Merchandise did. Which he thinks is fine, he likes touring. He hopes that their touring is doing something for more than just them, though. He hopes that like Merchandise, they can make connections outside of the city, he hopes that they can bring people back to Tampa, show them that there are things happening here. “It starts building that music community,” he says.

I ask Stratton if the example Merchandise set has caught on with many other Tampa-based bands. “We always want to see people from here tour, but that doesn’t happen all that often. That’s part of it…” (“It” being what is impeding the Tampa music scene from being what it could be). “I don’t see that many people from Tampa that take music that seriously, which is fine. I don’t think anyone needs to take music seriously, at all, but when there’s more people that take it seriously, it connects more people to Tampa.”

This is part one of a two-part serialized article. Part two will be released next week.

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