Will Stenberg was 24 when he came home.
He'd been away for five years—and like most Mendo kids with musical ambitions, he'd left as soon he was able: first to Vermont, where he was briefly enrolled at Bennington, the liberal arts college, then to New York City, where he was a door-to-door shill for the Working Families Party. A trip to Memphis followed, as did two years in Chicago, where he commuted long hours on the El, worked a dreary retail job at O'Hare Airport and crashed often on a spare mattress owned by yours truly.
He never did achieve those ambitions while away—but, like a good apprentice, he studied, practiced and earned his musical chops.
By the time he returned to Fort Bragg in 2004, not only could he play a guitar and sing Hank Williams—he could write a damn fine song of his own. Which is exactly what he did with The Kerosene Kondors, a jug band that played fast and played acoustic. Stenberg became “Willie Rubio,” and the Kondors became something of an institution on the coast, playing rowdy, packed shows and releasing two records (they're working on a third). Along with a handful of other local musicians, Stenberg also began the complicated task of cultivating a music scene in an area where the young, ambitious and musically inclined do exactly what he did: They leave.
In this Q&A, Will Stenberg talks about the Kondors, music on the Mendocino Coast and the building of a small, rural music scene.
Describe the evolution from your first album.
The first album we put out—we considered ourselves a jug band. It was entirely acoustic. It was raucous, invariably fast tempos, kind of a hillbilly schtick. It was good, but very different from what we do now. We had a washboard, we had a washtub bass and a banjo player. It was fast and twangy and drunken. Then the lineup changed. The lineup has changed constantly—I should say that right off when I talk about “this band.” There's three of us who've remained through the years and probably 10 people who've come in and out. So by the second album we had a stand-up bass instead of a washtub bass—which is pretty different—and we didn't have a washboard player. But we had an accordion, and it was a little more cohesive. It was a little slicker—but by no means slick. It was country, and rag-timey and jump and swing.
There was an idea that the Kerosene Kondors were a country band—and we started to expand the definition of that on the second record. So there's everything from outlaw country music to a stab at Appalachian folk to dark, danceable ragtime and jump-jazz, and an attempt at a New Orleans thing. So it became more broadly defined as American roots music. So that was the second. But all this time I've had all these other songs that don't belong to that genre at all. And I've always thought—'I can't bring these songs to the Kerosene Kondors because we don't those kinds of songs.' Sometime during the course of this current album in progress, I said 'why am I doing this?' So now we have songs that are very hard to define—and that can be good. If you stop growing, what's the point?
Talk about the history of the scene here.
In the '70s this place was pretty wild. There was live music in all the bars every night. There was a band based out of here called Cat Mother & The All Night Newsboys, who's first album was produced by Jimi Hendrix...I've heard some of their stuff on vinyl—it was really ahead of it's time: It was kind of like psychedelic country music...To me, they're right up there with the Flying Burrito Brothers and all the other hippie-country acts of the day—but you don't hear about them.
There was a band called MoFoCo. Full disclosure: their frontman is my guitar player in the Kerosene Kondors—Buddy Stubs, one of the true musical treasures of this area. He's an old school musical veteran. He's been everywhere and done it all. He's a wellspring of really great stories about musical life and he's been committed to music since he could walk. He's really one of a kind. And I'd always say that—even if he wasn't in my band. He can play anything and you don't have to tell him—he's a guitar player. That's what the man is. And there's a magic to that kind of person that can't be faked. On this new record we're working on—everything about it is exciting me, but bringing in different styles of music from all over the place, from punk rock to zydeco, he's really been unleashed as a guitar player.
There were giant music festivals out on Albion Ridge, lots of naked people, just dancin' around and playin' banjos.
Stuff like that doesn't happen still?
Not like it used to. I was encouraged by the music festival put on at Old Mill Farm last summer called Invisible Ocean. That was a legit music festival that included bands from the Bay Area and Humboldt and up as far as Oregon. It was cool—it was way out in the woods, no neighbors, no noise complaints, no law, really. But everybody behaved themselves.
We played at it and it was a blast. There was home brewed beer, independent films debuting, all out in the middle of nowhere, literally.
It was wildly successful. Not only did the people who put it on break even—all the bands got paid. You can't get much more successful than that.
Why hasn't there been follow up?
There will be, I think. There's talk of getting an “anchor band,” and actually kind of a “famous band,” you know, Will Oldham's name was tossed around..
Describe the music scene now.
Small, insular, tight knit. It seems to involve the same 10 or 15 people in various musical combinations. There's The Blushin' Roulettes, The Kerosene
Kondors...there's Foxglove, Steven Bates Band, Roger Wood. Those are the groups that seem to be the most active.
In the younger generation it's roots-folk based, but it branches out from there into various permutations. In the older crowd it's more like party rock.
We [could use] some outside blood, because like I said, it's insular. One thing you have in bigger scenes—not even necessarily in Chicago or New York, but even in Arcata because it's a college town—is you have a lot of different bands vying for attention and audience, some kind of success to distinguish themselves from each other. It's like, healthy competition is good for the marketplace kind of thing, not to sound like a capitalist theoretician, but I think the same goes for art. And here everything's so easy and so comfortable. We're all in each others bands. That's kinda' beautiful, but it needs a little, you know, kick in the ass.
I think a lot of the creative young people leave. They go to Portland or San Francisco or wherever because there's not a lot of opportunities here to get any exposure on the national level. You can't blame them for leaving. But you end up with a lot of a certain kind of music that isn't—I'm not going to bad mouth anybody, but like, white-reggae-hip-hop-fusion stuff. It's very Nor-cal. It's very regional. I don't think it has a wide appeal...Which is funny, because Mendocino is kind of famous for being an artistic community.
Is that still Mendocino?
I don't see it. I see it as a commercial enterprise...Fort Bragg is becoming like another Mendocino. It's going in that direction—and you can't fault it, because there's no other way to go but down into crackland and meth-smoking hell. Tourism is the only option.
Is it worth trying to stay here and grow the scene?
Yeah, that's a noble cause, for sure. I think that's partly the musicians responsibility, but it's also partly the business community, creating more space for live music and more interest in it and less regulations...I'm sure there's kids in the high schools around here who are just leaving who are playing music. If they wanted to stay and contribute to the music scene, it would probably shake things up a bit. But I don't see why they would.
When I went to high school there were always basement shows and backyard shows. Does that happen here?
A little bit. But as far as the bands that I see playing out, I'm probably the youngest person playing music—and I'm about to be 30 years old. So there you go. Something's wrong with this picture. Where are the kids?
But aren't you playing at the more official places to have shows?
We've played in backyards. Maybe that's happening. Maybe I'm not at the right parties...You know, there's also a phenomenon of people from here who have left and they're doing really well. Emily Jane White is finding international success. She has no day job. She's a good friend of mine from high school. The Shaky Hands, who some people have heard of—they're doing really well. Nick Delffs, the main songwriter, he's from Philo. Up in Humboldt County, you have Bucky Walters, who are an increasingly popular bluegrass band. They're partly from Boonville. For a while, Andre Karpov from Fort Bragg was doing well—he got on NPR with his musical projects. It all adds to the picture that you got to leave to make it. But maybe it's not true.
So is that your plan?
I don't want to sound like a quitter—this is my home and I love it. But yeah, eventually I want further musical opportunities, and I don't want to spend 10 years trying to change this area politically and economically in order to do that.
If things were going to change, do you think that would have happened by now?
I see it happening incrementally. There are more places to play shows now than there were five years ago. Five years ago, it was pretty much the Caspar Inn. Then Dick's Place became more viable as a place to play, now the Golden West is having shows, the Tip Top is having shows. Even Patterson's is having acoustic shows. V'Canto is having acoustic shows. We'd like to have electric shows, but see previous AVA articles about that. So yeah, it's changing. But let's say you were living in Portland and you're playing a lot of shows, and your audience is growing—it creates momentum. But here, the momentum eventually hits critical mass and then it stops because there aren't any more people who are going to come. You've found your audience, you've packed the Caspar Inn, you're happy, they're happy. It's great and I love it, but it doesn't get bigger than that here. That's where it stops. If you want to try and bigger than that, you gotta go.
One thing that is really cool about this area, musically, is that you have inter-generational bands, which I've almost never seen in the city—outside of jazz. And it's because the pool is so small that you end up reaching outside your age group, or your scene, to find people you can play with. So in my band, for instance, we have two really well-traveled professional session musicians who are in their 50s, and we have me and my friend Jubal, who are young musicians.
You don't go to a club in the city and see a rock'n'roll band with 50-year-olds and 20-year-olds. It's a shame because there's something really cool that happens there with the combination of young energy and older, seasoned players. I would recommend it to the city kids that may or may not [read] this. Get out of your scene and find these guys, because they're there and they're better than you.
When's your new record coming out?
May. It's really all over the place. We decided to drop any preconceptions about what kind of music we play, and not consciously go for any kind of retro sound, or folk sound, and embrace everything in music that excites us. There's stuff on there reminiscent of zydeco, punk-rock, funk—but they're all my songs, which tend to be lyrically based, poetic or narrative. It's going to be good—and three-and-a-half years in the making. So it better be good. It might even be a double album.
Will there be any hip hop-reggae?
Everything but hip-hop-reggae. We're not cut out for it.