The San Marcos Music Scene Runs Deep
ACL Fest hip-hop headliners Brockhampton might just be the tip of the iceberg from our neighbors south on I-35
On a March evening in 2016, inside the Dahlia Woods Art Gallery in San Marcos, a mixtape release party transpired unassumingly. Hosting such events regularly, the community exhibition center acts as a headquarters for local artists of the small college town. Bumping through the speakers was All-American Trash, debut release from local rap group Brockhampton.
Kevin Abstract, the song cycle's chief creative, stood at the center of the room wearing his signature motorcycle helmet. The rest of the project's producers, from UT student Merlyn Wood to Texas State music major Russell Boring, aka Joba, scattered themselves around the lightly attended event. Attendees scrolled through their phones, others sold merch, while the rest listened, sang, and danced.
By summer, the group had relocated to Los Angeles, landed a TV show on Viceland, and proceeded to drop three smash-hit albums within the span of six months.
In the process, Brockhampton redefined the mainstream's definition of a boy band. By trading bland pop for righteous rhymes intertwined with catchy choruses and cosmopolitan production, the crew brought the novelty genre under the umbrella of modern music's pre-eminent sound. And yet, on that night more than two years ago, few could have expected that the biggest hip-hop act at ACL Fest this October – likely the most anticipated rap crew to hit a Zilker Park stage since Outkast in 2014 – would have emerged from San Marcos.
Thirty minutes down I-35, the Texas State University hub sits in the shadow of Austin. Nevertheless, its fertile music scene is thriving in its own right. Only 30 square miles and numbering some 60,000 inhabitants, the town where Stevie Ray Vaughan once sequestered himself to record has begun defying narrow city limits with raw talent and homemade support even as Austin and San Antonio inch toward becoming one metropolitan area.
Texas State University
Witness a man with no shoes jump onto the back of a moving, rainbow-painted school bus and it's easy to feel like you've receded several decades in San Marcos. Fortunately, over the last several years, that retro quirk has begun to fade. Between 2013 and 2015, San Marcos notched the fastest-growing city in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Texas State sparks much of the surge. Servicing 38,000 students, it became a research institution in 2016 after 19 straight years of enrollment growth. The school characterizes its hometown much like Denton is defined by the University of North Texas, the first institution in the country to offer a jazz degree. UNT remains the top choice for young musicians in the state.
Credit, in part, Thomas Clark. Before becoming the director of Texas State's School of Music, Clark held down a faculty spot at UNT.
"I had an impression all those years when I was living in Denton about San Marcos being a sleepy little college town," says Clark.
Things started to change in 2008 with Clark's arrival. At the time, Taylor Wilkins, frontman of Austin metal act Otis the Destroyer, put together his first band, the Couch, while in his second year at Texas State.
"There weren't many people in bands that were in the Texas State music school," says Wilkins. "Denton had that, the combination of incredible jazz musicians and bands, but it was more punk rock in San Marcos – not as many musicians focused on the music."
Lack of venues to play proved one major obstacle. Case in point: After hosting 6,887 straight nights of live music, the Triple Crown closed in December 2015.
"That scattered the scene," says Steve Jones, a radio personality at Texas State radio frequency KTSW and publisher of the city's concert listing website SanMarcosTonight.com. "People at small venues picked up the slack."
Valentino's Pizza, Kiva Lounge (now named the Morgue), and Tantra Coffeehouse led the charge of local businesses adding stages to their footprint. However makeshift, this abundance lent musicians low-pressure environments to learn their practice. Accessibility thus invigorated San Marcos' live music scene.
"Austin is the live music capital of the world, but San Marcos is starting to be its younger cousin," says Clark, adding that Texas State's population now exceeds that of UNT. "A lot of that is coming from our program."
Groups such as the neo-soul quartet Blumoon and indie rockers Lantic are coming together in Texas State music classes.
"There's been a recent increase in talent in this new crop of young bands," says Troy Vita, producer of KTSW's Studio C series, which features live performances from local bands. "We have a really good crop of student bands right now."
San Marcos' proximity to Austin is beginning to attract musicians the way the state capital has over the past quarter-century.
"It's between ATX and STX to where we can get gigs in both places," offers Andrew Harkey of Blumoon. "That's a pulling factor for a lot of musicians coming here. Also, it's not Austin. Austin is very popular, musicians on every corner, but it's saturated."
Much of the scene's vibrancy occurs outside of the downtown square. From Rock Bottom's bluegrass fusion to Attic Ted's freak psych, many of San Marcos' defining acts make a name for themselves through DIY shows.
"The music scene thrives because people bust ass to put on their own shows," affirms Mackenzie Dart of Rock Bottom String Band.
While performance spaces continue multiplying, many reside in restaurants and coffee shops where families go for meals and live music stays in the background. Homemade shows remain the workaround.
"Valentino's would try to have rap shows, but it's a family pizza shop, so rappers can't be going in there flipping tables," acknowledges Kenny Casanova, rapper in the city's fast-rising rap group Pnthn. "We really had to create our own venues."
Spaces range from basements and yoga studios to bamboo forests. Anywhere that's big enough to mosh can be a venue.
"The most successful shows around town are house parties because most people are underage or they just don't wanna go to bars," says Blumoon singer Kendra Sells.
Until just recently, Sarah Street constituted the epicenter of the DIY scene. A few blocks from campus, its house parties jolted the surrounding neighborhood into the wee hours. One conductor of that energy was student-led collective Chapter 12 Records. Founded as a record label for Texas State musicians, the venture caught momentum when co-founder Michael Howard stumbled upon a string band house party show in 2014 and subsequently threw his own musical bacchanal.
"I had never seen bluegrass, never seen people doing percussion with strings and a washboard," reminisces Howard. "I thought, 'I want to showcase this as much as possible.'"
Howard and a couple of buddies moved into a house on Sarah Street and started organizing afternoon jams and evening gigs. Business bustled. The party soon sprawled out onto the block, with Chapter 12 organizing themed parties for Halloween, MLK Day, and Christmas.
As with most house parties, police soon killed the buzz. "Cops started coming around 10pm and swiftly shut down house shows," laments Casanova.
In 2017, Chapter 12 launched the Martian Arts Festival, a two-day camping experience at High Road Rocky Ranch, which sits about 20 minutes outside of downtown San Marcos. A stacked bill of local musicians and artists culminated in 500 attendees its first year and close to 900 people marked the second annual event in April. Its success prompted Chapter 12 to rebrand as Apogee Presents, a promotions company they hope becomes "the Margin Walker of San Marcos."
Still San Marcos, Not Austin
San Marcos is the 59th largest city in Texas. The music scene is young and promising, but financing careers it isn't.
"There is essentially no way to sustain a music career there," says Wilkins.
Spaces such as the Morgue and Tantra aren't Hotel Vegas or Swan Dive. They're not going to spend much on music because it isn't the lifeblood of their business. People are going to have a slice of pizza or a beer regardless of if there's a band playing.
"It's really hard in San Marcos, because no one wants to pay," grouses Cold Tony's frontman Michael Martinez.
The Tony's are among a crop of San Marcos bands that boast an established following through ample local gigging, but in a college town, most won't progress beyond that. Patrons are on student budgets, so few shell out more than a couple of dollars for a meal, let alone a cover charge.
"There's this weird gap where bars can't book bands because no one will pay a cover charge and then established bands don't want to play because they don't get compensated," reveals Eli Zablosky, head of marketing and promotion for Chapter 12/Apogee Presents.
Musicians hope a dedicated venue will bridge the gap.
"We're hurting for a good, small, indoor venue," says Alex Schultz of Rock Bottom String Band. "Young bands need a place that books shows on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to work out their live performance on an actual sound system and an actual stage."
Before that happens, business owners need proof young San Martians have room for live music in their time and budget. The city has no dedicated music store, and the only record shop in town, Superfly's Lone Star Music Emporium, closed last year.
"You gotta think about the rest of the students that don't dress like us and don't think like us," says Harkey. "The EDM culture is more widespread than the live music scene."
Not seeing cash from live gigs is a reality for most musicians in 2018. Expecting San Marcos to become a performance powerhouse that funds lives might be asking the scene to grow in ways those within it are wary. Much of San Marcos' ethos is shaped by its defiance against becoming Austin.
"San Marcos does not want to be Austin," says Rock Bottom String Band vocalist Tara Miller. "I've lived close enough to Austin to see how money has destroyed what people fell in love with Austin [for] in the first place."
"We have something really authentic coming from a bunch of kids playing their hearts out simply for the love of it," adds Dart. "Just because we don't get a bunch of 'big' bands coming through I feel like many folks tend to discount us right off the bat."
Inside the Bubble
No stretch to predict another hip-hop endeavor from San Marcos hitting ACL Fest stages soon. Pnthn, a forceful 10-man rap group, have burst onto the national radar from the same small college scene Brockhampton emerged out of just two years ago.
Where the latter coddles singable melodies, Pnthn goes for the throat with a constant stream of sharp flows over bobbing and weaving, Southern-fried production. Formed only last year, the crew's string of successful DIY shows in San Marcos has hoisted them upon a wave of momentum yet to crash. Prominent publications including Pitchfork and Lyrical Lemonade have caught on, and this weekend the MC syndicate opens for cult rap hero Lil B at Mohawk.
Although still a small scene largely built in homes, pizza shops, and espresso bars, San Marcos stakes a larger claim in trending acts Pnthn and Brockhampton, who reflect what makes the music scene exciting right now. Like a farm system in baseball, the city remains intimate enough for any local act to captivate fans and close enough to urban action for raw talents to become stars.
"San Marcos is a bubble, but any act can burst through with the support of the city," says producer Por Vida. "The people will support great music acts because they know they deserve more than to be playing in the same college town."
10 Emerging San Marcos Acts
1) Pnthn A rap group with a 10-man rotation, Pnthn has no clear starting five. From Tony Tone's coolheaded flows to Por Vida's southerly production, everyone brings a different flavor to the table. This act is deep and ready to consume.
2) Blumoon Futuristic neo-soul with hints of bossa nova and extended jazz breakdowns.
3) Lantic Anchoring an established indie rock group on the scene, drummer Dakota Carley says their upcoming album heads forward sonically as they've learned to treat music "like nurturing a little baby."
4) Bogan Villa Psychedelic petal metal, guitarist William Wells electrifies.
5) Samantha Flowers New to music, Flowers already opened for two of her contemporary influences. Her feel-good indie-pop debuted in front of sold-out crowds for Cuco and Boy Pablo earlier this year.
6) Rusty Dusty Soulful indie with Dr. Dog and My Morning Jacket sensibilities, though hints of Americana throw a pleasant twist.
7) Moon Dunes San Marcos folk-rock that could flow from the river, this fourpiece conveys the desert psychedelia of the Doors with the earthy tone of the town they reside in.
8) Poolboi Blu Deep sample hip-hop guaranteed to keep you cool in the summer heat.
9) The Cold Tony’s Mainstay within San Marcos' house party scene, the Tony's surf rock will soon become more jazzy with the addition of sax player Jamal Edwards, who emerged from Texas State's jazz school with guitarist/vocalist Michael Martinez and bassist Andrew Harkey.
10) Clever Heads Prevail Some Red Hot Chili Peppers in a San Marcos rock band best suited for Texas road trippin'.