To the artists of Tucson, Arizona and Southern Arizona/Sonora County in general: I’m sorry. I hope that discussing your scene’s many virtues doesn’t eventually result in you all sleeping on the streets outside the condos where your ancestral punk houses once stood.
For over a decade—since I first visited my late mother in the retired biker, handmade jewelry maker, libertarian standup comedian haven of Bisbee, Arizona, and looked up Francis Harold & the Holograms on MySpace—I’ve believed that the larger Tucson area is an unsung paradise for music. If the average summer temperature of 102 degrees (a heat incommensurate with most representations of heaven) discourages the poseuric riff raff, all the better. That said, throwing an annual music festival as infectiously joyous as the one Tucson throws the first week of every September isn’t exactly an effective “Keep Out” sign. (Nor, as we will discuss, is it intended to be.)
Named after the Hotel Congress/Club Congress that housed it in 2005, HOCO Fest was partially founded to mark the 20th anniversary of the venue side of the building; partially to salvage the hotel’s consistently slow Labor Day weekend, and mostly to celebrate a vision of the area’s arts community, what the fest’s founder David Slutes calls “uncompromising and… aspirational.”
Slutes, the frontman of the semi-legendary/fully-badass “Could Have Been Bigger Than the Gin Blossoms, If Life Was Fair” Tucson band the Sidewinders, is HOCO’s founder and was (until 2015, when Matt Baquet took over) the festival’s de-facto godhead. The first lineup, handpicked by Slutes, consisted of bands that had either been the backbone of Club Congress during its first two decades, or beloved Tucson bands that the Club Congress booker convinced to reunite. (That includes Slutes’ own Sidewinders, the ‘90s no-fi skuzz bloozers of Doo Rag, Giant Sand, Naked Prey… and 36 other acts familiar to anyone who grew up in Arizona, had an overachieving collection of cowpunk albums on vinyl, and/or was a college radio DJ in the 1980s.) Slutes says he even “tricked Green On Red into getting back together” for the fest, for what would be an extremely rare (and final American) appearance by the Tucson band whose 1985 album, Gas Food Lodging, maybe/probably/why not invented the genre of alternative country. (Or co-invented, with the Mekons.)
Back then, the festival was intended to be a one-off party. But if God had intended for anniversary celebrations to be held only once, they wouldn't have invented music criticism. Two years after its inception, HOCO distinguished itself as the first “solar powered festival.” This year, the festival also hosted a table for a Tucson harm reduction advocacy group, and held a day of ecology minded panels billed as “Regenerate AZ: Sonoran Desert Sustainability Summit”. Clearly, it is a community-minded affair. With panelists ranging from the organizers of Mexico City’s DIY NRMAL Festival, to representatives from both local environmentalist cooperatives and the Pima County department for Community and Economic Development, the festival manages to be notably unembarrassing. It even managed to change my mind about the design of those goddamn Liquid Death water cans. (Aluminum cans, even when gussied up as Affliction-clad weeble wobbles, is considerably less indefensible than going through an entire green room worth of plastic bottles.)
Not long after this conversation, the wife of one of billy woods’ friends fainted.
Also, yes, the festival was very hot—the whole “dry heat” thing, where the difference is being a baked potato versus walking through endless long blocks of beef stew. In brief interviews with featured visiting musicians, from the NYC neo-wave soul collective Michelle to the hip hop duo Armand Hammer, the literal temperature was a topic of bemused fascination.
As we were drinking, I wasn’t recording billy woods or Elucid when we discussed the weather. But they both said something along the lines of: “it’s very hot here.” Not long after this conversation, the wife of one of billy woods’ friends fainted.
Such trenchant socializing was easy for an intrepid festival reporter. HOCO fest is spread across three stages, all conveniently within a few hundred feet of each other. There’s the Club Stage—the mid-sized indoor venue where most of the punk, garage, and hip hop artists performed, the Century Room—which spotlighted ambient artists and held a nightly jazz session, and the Plaza Stage—the large outdoor performing area, situated in the hotel’s courtyard, where the festival’s most recognizable names played to a mixed and fluid crowd of ardent fans and curious tourists/passerbys. Nearly every act was more interesting than whatever online bloodsports were occurring on my phone, which was a nice change of pace. And a lot, at any given time, depended on how the adderall was hitting.
I’d decided the best way to confirm my bias towards Tuscson was by asking some of the local artists to show me around town. I set aside an afternoon for the local garage band Class.
The youngish men in Class, Tucson’s answer to a Gearhead Records hotrod (with a copy of Wire’s Pink Flag stuck in the tape deck), picked me up from the Hotel Congress in a 2004 Nissan Sentra that—with its scarification of chipped paint and windows that rolled in only one direction (down)—looked like it’d just driven out of central casting for a previously undiscovered ‘80s-era John Cusack punxspoitation flick. The band—Andy, Erik, Jim, and Ryan (with Erik absent from our day trip on account of either “being at at work” or “having a headache”—is a mix of natives and transplants, with the members having done time in a number of cross-continent punk bands (Rik and The Pigs, Brown Sugar) and local acts that range from cumbia to power-pop. Class works as a hodgepodge of its individuals’ individual backgrounds and fancies. Punk and garage may be the common ground, but half the band has drone/synth side projects. And, when we made a pit stop at Andy’s cozy/alt bungalow-style rental, I was on my second glass of water before I realized someone had flipped over the Warren Zevon album that’d been playing in the background since we’d arrived.
Driving around with Class is exactly like driving around with hometown friends in a rock band. We dropped off tapes for consignment at Wooden Tooth, the local record store. We tried and failed to get free food from the festival caterers (apparently bands only dined for free on the days they played). The band made private jokes I didn’t understand. The band made universal boho-alt jokes (Jim and Ryan discussing how there was “one Carhartt beanie distributed to every member of the Tucson music community”) which I did understand. The band talked some off-the-record shit about some bands I knew. The band talked some on-the-record shit about some bands I’d never heard of, so I didn’t bother writing it down.
The band talked some off-the-record shit about some bands I knew. The band talked some on-the-record shit about some bands I’d never heard of, so I didn’t bother writing it down.
The focus of the tour of Tucson was not prurient gossip, it was to see Midtown Island Studio, run by a guy named Matt Rendon, the 8-track recording mecca for a bunch of area artists of the psych/garage/punk/’60s wooly bully hoo-ha variety. Rendon has been operating since he packed up his previous studio, Coma Cave, from his parents’ garage in 2013 and rebuilt it in the backyard garage of his own home.
I was lucky enough to be brought in right when Exbats (who didn’t play HOCO this year, and who are technically from Bisbee, Arizona, but who are also such a wonderful amalgamation of girl group bittersweetness and pastel garage punk-pop that not discussing them would be rock 'n' roll journalism malpractice) were wrapping up rehearsal for a show later that night. As the band finished breaking down their equipment, Kenny McLain—the Exbats' guitarist, and father of Inez McLain, who sings and drums in the band—told me about the band’s recent successful sojourn to New York, where the band played Brooklyn’s TV Eye to a huge audience. “It sort of makes you wonder if we should…” he began but, perhaps realizing the most surefire way of decimating one’s NYC audience is by loving the place, didn’t finish the thought.
Later, Exbats bassist Bobby Carlson asked me to be sure to write that “Tucson sucks. It’s really hot here.” He said it as prayer, and in full acknowledgement that a band as sweet and fine as Exbats are a pretty piss poor advertisement for a scene sucking.
One afternoon, Kid Congo Powers (former guitarist for the Cramps, and Gun Club, and Bad Seeds, and almost every other goth guitar gang that existed before all the good band names were used up, who moved to Tuscon with his husband right before COVID) and I went to get tacos. Powers picked me up (in his 2013 Prius c, for those keeping track) and we took the scenic route to South Tucson. While listening to a comp of obscure glam songs (Powers doesn’t really do unobscure), we talked about his upcoming memoir and how he’d kept himself busy during lockdown. He brought me up to speed on the musicians who’d moved to the Tucson area in the last few years (Michelle Mae of the Make Up, the Melvins’ Buzz Osbourne) and how, to the surprise of both he and his husband, there was almost always something to do in the city; shows by locals or visitors, an art opening to attend. He also agreed that it was very hot in Tucson. Then he took me to Tacos Apson, the stand owned by Javier Durazo and named in tribute to Drazo’s father; the drummer of Los Apson.
Los Apson is a Sonoran band that got famous in the ‘60s for recording Spanish language versions of American rock hits. They reunited to headline the opening night of HOCO. On that same night, Kid Congo Powers performed slick and grimy selections from his decades deep catalog while dressed in a black suit, striped with thick lightning lines of silver, looking like a door to door Hawkwind salesman. When Los Apson took to the outdoor stage, Kid Congo—whose book goes hard into the various Latin sounds that were omnipresent during his Los Angeles childhood—was visibilly thrilled at the idea of seeing them. Dressed in glittering suits of white, Los Apson mirrored Power’s sartorial taste in silver and flash, as they played their own (significantly less gritty, though equally sideways and equally potent) take on early rock ‘n’ roll.
Kid Congo’s excitement about seeing Los Apson touches on what was a common theme of HOCO Fest: the popularity and importance of artists who, by dint of singing in Spanish, are largely underappreciated by English language music media. As far as knowledge of Spanish language music goes, this reporter is probably a three out of ten. It would be grotesque to write about contemporary punk without having at least a passing familiarity with bands coming out of L.A., Mexico, and the southern Americas. But in HOCO, a festival that considers Tucson to be a partner and artistic sister city to Nogales in the south, I saw a repeating trend of familiar bands (like Fucked Up or Wand) who I knew and enjoyed, and expected to be mobbed, were greeted with great affection, if not euphoria. While bands I was entirely unfamiliar with (the occasionally Babes In Toyland-eque pop-gaze-cacophony of Hermasillo’s Margaritas Podridas or, from the same city, the driving surf psych of Sgt. Paper) were greeted with an enthusiasm bordering on rapture, with the highest festival population of “kids” (relatively speaking) singing along to every word. The most wild show of the week was easily that of the Cuban-American rapper, La Goony Chonga. The Club room overflowed with tattooed and screaming revelers, many of whom brought elaborate fans to wave in reflection of the one used as both prop and conductor’s baton by the woman spitting from the stage.
Oh and by the way, the food at Tacos Apson is delicious. I’m vegetarian but I had Asada. If I’m going to be wrong anyway, I’m going down with a former Bad Seed at my side and a taco in my mouth.
Los Ésplifs were the final band to play this year’s festival, and appropriately so. I’d interviewed the band’s founders, Saúl Millan and Caleb Michel, briefly before their set and I regretted that I’d failed to spend more of the weekend with them. The two young men, with strong ties to regional DIY, cumbia, jazz, and avant garde, are already linchpins in both a “rising” Southern Arizona music scene and the area’s past. Even just within their band, which Michel aptly describes as “storytelling with cumbia, in this psychedelic world,” the Tucson balance is illustrated, with the frontman continuing, “I’m stuck in the past and Saúl is really in the present.”
More than by his words, this was made clear by Los Ésplifs set. Playing for over an hour to one of the largest crowds of the festival, Los Ésplifs brought together all the divergent subcultures in attendance; the salsa and cumbia and jazz kids, the rockers, the punks, the three goths who showed up, the jam band aficionados, the hippies, and all the genre agnostic townies who danced with abandon to a tuff and modern rendition of music they either grew up with or knew someone who did. It was, frankly, beautiful. Near the end of the set, Caleb Michel announced, “I see a lot of people unsure what to do with their bodies. Just look at the people up front, and do what they do.” A completely delusional directive for many of us, but still beautiful.
Tempting as it may be to consider Exbats’ “Coolsville, USA” a Sub-Pop Records-ian invitation to join a burgeoning Arizona scene, the song is about the friendship between Scooby Doo and Shaggy Rogers. Much of Tucson’s arts community, friendly-doo as it may be, would maybe prefer you just visit. But the founders of HOCO are aiming, without retreating into fantasy, a bit higher.
“They say it's inevitable that five hundred thousand people are going to move here in the next decade or so,” HOCO’s current organizer, Matt Baquet, explains, “To me, HOCO, it’s like putting up ‘the bat signal’ for the right kind of people. A low key goal of mine, just knowing what is coming for us, no matter what, with people moving here… we want to rebrand our city as an art city. Sustainable and with eco-friendly practices. And if you’re down with those things? Well then, welcome. That’s the vibe, with the inevitable over development and gentrification heading our way. Maybe we can steer it.”
Baquet’s hope isn’t outside the realm of possibilities. Miracles happen every day, angels live among us, etc. And coupled with David Slutes’ equally anti-realpolitik vision of “we may lose money, but we don’t compromise,” there’s at least always the countercultural martyr’s glory of going down swinging. Either way, they successfully make an argument that never needed making in the first place: Tucson is one of America’s finest, coolest, most hep music towns. I won’t call it “important” though. As soon as art becomes important, the rent goes up.