SF State’s music scene fosters vibrant community

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By Kristen Martz and Lovelie Faustino


As new students living in the dorms at SF State, Gregory DiMartino and Julian Borrego weren’t allowed to practice their music in their rooms. Instead, they would walk about campus with their instruments, rehearsing and writing new songs.

“Julian and I would go on night walks with our guitars,” said DiMartino, a creative writing major and frontman of Black Cobra Vipers, a self-described hipster rock band with three SF State members. “There’s cool meadows — it’s a beautiful campus, there’s cool little niches you can go into and sing songs.”


Meet Black Cobra Vipers


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DiMartino and Borrego, Black Cobra Vipers bassist and music major, were meandering about the campus one night when they heard a woman complimenting them from the dorms.

“We were like ‘Jesus, thanks,’ and we looked at her and we looked at each other all handsome and were like ‘hell yeah, there’s a chick in the world who’s down with that’,” DiMartino said, “but it turned out to just be Rob.”

Rob Mills, the “woman,” from the dorms and a music major, later went on to become the drummer of Black Cobra Vipers.

For some students, the constant studying that comes with college life means hanging up the instruments and dreams of playing in a band. At SF State, however, many students find a place where new bands are created and thrive.

Students aren’t the only ones pursuing their music dreams on campus, though. Tyler Johnson of Tommy Boys, a math rock band with two SF State members, sees his music career as a double life. He is a broadcasting and electronic communication arts graduate student and an instructor at SF State as well.


Meet Tommy Boys


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“My band life and school life are kind of like separate lives. I actually teach a couple classes and only a few of my students have figured out I’m in a band and sometimes they’ll show up at a show and say hi, but it’s kind of like this almost secret life,” Johnson said.

Upcoming Shows

  • Cool Ghouls –
    May 7, Brick & Mortar Music Hall @ 9 p.m., FREE, 18 and over;
    May 15, The Depot @ 6 p.m., FREE, all ages
  • Tommy Boys –
    May 11, 654 36th Ave @ 6 p.m., $3, all ages
  • Rin Tin Tiger –
    May 11, Bottom of the Hill @ 9 p.m., $14, all ages;
    May 17, BFD 2013 @ 11 a.m., $35-$60 all ages
  • Black Cobra Vipers –
    May 17, DNA Lounge @ 8:30 p.m., $10, all ages;
    June 14, The Independent @ 9 p.m., $13 adv/$15 @ door, 21 and over
  • Aleutia –
    May 31, 654 36th Ave @ 7 p.m., FREE, all ages
  • Fool’s Gold –
    June 4, Brick & Mortar Music Hall @ 9 p.m., FREE, 18 and over

Like many other student musicians, Johnson balanced having responsibilities outside of music and following his passion here in San Francisco. Kelcey Ayer of Local Natives, an indie band on the rise after having played Coachella and a near sold-out world tour, juggled a double life between two cities while studying at SF State and keeping his band in LA alive.

Ayer spent his year at SF State flying back and forth two or three times a month, cutting costs because his father flew for American Airlines as a pilot, allowing Ayer to fly for free domestically.

“I was jumping on a plane every couple of weeks and so by the end of the year it ended up being really not practical,” Ayer, singer-keyboardist of Local Natives and alumnus, said.

Despite the short-lived thrill of his jet-setting lifestyle, Ayer became overwhelmed by the pressures of maintaining a content band and healthy grade point average.

“I really enjoyed San Francisco and everything it had to offer and I was excited about getting a place in the city and traveling and commuting like that, but it just didn’t work out. Other people that we were jamming with were based out of Southern California, so I was making it really hard on myself and on everybody else,” Ayer said.

Matt Bartels, 23-year-old frontman for post-hardcore band Aleutia, experienced the obstacle of balancing academics and a personal life. Bartels was able to graduate in 2012 with a B.A. in history and use his time at SF State to create a song about his college life struggles.


Meet Aleutia


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“You’re in school and you know it’s worth it in the long run but I’m really an impatient person, so it was tough for me and it’s (the song) just about frustrations I had,” Bartels said. “I didn’t have a job yet, wasn’t quite sure what I was doing with my life. I was still in school and I’m sure a lot of kids could relate. You want to get out there and get your life going.”

But as the final notes of college ring out for some SF State musicians, the newly found free time has given them a new opportunity to dive into music.

“I think that I really, really started to excel in music once I left (school). I had more time — on behalf of the band, I was sacrificing. I was working, I was taking somewhere between 12 and 15 units per semester and I was doing music,” said Sean Sullivan, bassist of self-described alt folk band Rin Tin Tiger and creative writing alumnus.


Meet Rin Tin Tiger


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The band officially took flight after adding a drummer just two months before graduation. It was a much needed burst of energy for the previously fledgling band. While everything eventually worked out, Sullivan admitted that he doubts the band would’ve survived if he had to complete another academic year.

With great timing, Sullivan and the rest of Rin Tin Tiger were able to pull together to participate in the SF State Battle of the Bands in 2011.

Black Cobra Vipers were also participants and managed to beat Rin Tin Tiger, claiming first place and leaving Rin Tin Tiger crushed in second place. Claws and fangs came out as drama ensued, but all grudges were later resolved.

“We’re actually not enemies anymore,” frontman of Rin Tin Tiger, Kevin Sullivan, said. “They’re actually a really great band but we were enemies for awhile.”

After winning “Battle of the Bands” at SF State, Black Cobra Vipers utilized their time playing music to perfect their sound and credit SF State’s music program for some of their success.

“I have to say that they — studying music — that’s all they do every day, at school as well. So they’re very practiced musicians who are constantly developing. The music program has shaped them, I think, by pushing them to practice every single day,” DiMartino of Black Cobra Vipers said.

Many student musicians meet in the SF State music department and form tight-knit bonds that have turned the school into a music-central community.

“I feel like the people here have the same consciousness as far as what they want to do and the goals they have. I mean, a lot of our first shows were house shows put on by SF State students and just getting in that network is pretty close-knit with everyone,” said Ryan Wong, BECA major and guitarist of Cool Ghouls, a self-described rock ‘n’ roll band with three SF State members, two being alumni.


Meet Cool Ghouls


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The band community at SF State serves as a platform not only for house shows, but to put together campus sets as well.

Derek Schultz, frontman of Owl Paws and BECA alumnus, recounted his experience of playing everywhere possible on campus.

“We pretty much played in every nook and cranny of SF State. Probably every cranny and maybe every nook. We definitely hit up all the crannies,” Schultz said.

Colin Hayes, guitarist of the Owl Paws, also recounted his experience.

“We even recorded down in the dungeon in the BECA audio. We recorded a tape down there. We’ve been all over that campus,” Hayes said.


Meet Owl Paws


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Schultz and Hayes, both audio engineer alumni, explained how fortunate they were to have a professor who excused them from class whenever significant shows and band opportunities arose.

“I think that in playing shows and doing those band-related things you’re actually applying a lot of the principles that you learned in a class about audio production,” Hayes said.

Many larger bands have even made their live debuts at SF State’s own The Depot in the Cesar Chavez Student Center.

“SFSU influenced me in a big way. I used to play tons of shows at the SFSU Depot, and had a band that formed at SF State, which allowed me to go on my very first tours. The SFSU Depot was actually a great place to check out and open for indie bands of the day and was really inspiring for a young musician such as myself,” said Luke Top, frontman of Fool’s Gold and music alumnus.

Aside from their SF State pride, most bands from the school, like Fool’s Gold, have timeless advice to new bands aiming for the same goals.

“Don’t cut corners. Practice. Go deep with it. Don’t settle for what the computer can do for you. Move towards discomfort.  If your music can’t be pegged, you’re doing good,” Top said.

As for all those shows at The Depot, Ayer affirmed that performance is a big key to success, but it’s important for a band to take its time.

“I would definitely say play live as much as possible and don’t rush things. Try to get some songs that you’re really proud of. Don’t necessarily worry about getting too much too quickly. Good things will come if the music is right,” Ayer said.

Sullivan agreed on the amount of patience it takes to form a successful band.

“It takes a long time to get recognized — it takes a long time to get any kind of recognition for doing anything. You can’t pick up a guitar and play a sweet solo or write a great ballad or make a super cool flyer and all of a sudden think people are going to respect you. The respect comes from longevity and longevity comes from drive and the drive comes from you, so don’t give up,” Sullivan said.


Jonathan Ramos and Matt Saincome contributed reporting to this story.

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Latest comments
  • hey where’s the Happy interview?

    happysf.bandcamp.com

    • Yes, we’re aware we didn’t include all the bands at SF Stafe – even ones we would have liked to included. We worked down from a large list and chose the ones most frequently suggested. It’s a little unrealistic to think that we could interview every band on campus! 🙂 This is just a small sample of a large population. Sorry Happy got left out, but maybe they can be included in another piece sometime.