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Some of the women who’ve played and built careers at the Casbah tell their stories. Plus: the U-T interviews the symphony’s incoming director, a downtown exhibition includes a community bike ride and more in our weekly digest of the region’s arts and culture news.
San Diego’s music scene history is largely told by – and about – men. For example, the trailer for the 2014 San Diego music scene documentary, “It’s Gonna Blow!!!” is exciting. Rapid-fire, juicy soundbites from San Diego’s most notorious voices between ‘86 and ‘96 (a decade that encompasses the Casbah’s beginnings in 1989). More voices than one can count in the brief trailer. And they’re all men.
The Casbah has managed to feel welcoming for a wide variety of people to perform and listen to shows, including women. As the venue celebrates its 30-year anniversary this month, I asked some women who’ve played – and built musical careers – there to tell their stories.
On a June night at the Casbah in 2003, then-San Diegan Anya Marina was part of a line-up of heavy-hitters at the time. She crushed her set, nestled between a.m. vibe and The Rugburns. A popular radio DJ on FM 94.9, and before that, 92.1 and 92.5, Marina had that mixture of fame and on-the-verge that tends to follow local celebrities around. In between songs, she charmed the crowd, and at one point, polled all the women in the audience about bikini-area grooming: wax vs. shave? One woman shouted out “Pluck!” It was an incredibly woman-centric night at the Casbah.
“I had no recollection of that but I don’t doubt I said that,” Marina said over the phone from Manhattan. “Good to know I was gathering important research.”
Marina remembers her performances at the Casbah with pride. “Playing the Casbah meant I rocked. … When I had heard that [owner] Tim Mays wanted me to play there, it was like I had won the lottery,” she said.
Carrie Gillespie Feller, of Hexa, went straight to the Casbah the night she turned 21. “I drank Long Island iced teas and watched the Melvins destroy everything for a solid hour and a half,” Gillespie Feller said. “I don’t recall them stopping to drink water or say hello or anything. It was epic. I was just starting to play in bands at the time, so of course I wanted to play on that stage.”
Artists and audience members alike praise the Casbah’s consistent commitment to local musicians, plus its diverse and multi-platform (and seemingly tireless) approach to growth, all without feeling like the venue either panders to local acts or has sold out with larger sister venues.
“I’ve shared stages there with bands I never thought I’d have the honor to and it’s because we’ve worked hard to get there,” said Shelby Wentz, the front person for Forest Grove (who performed at the Casbah last weekend as part of the venue’s month-long 30th anniversary celebration), and bassist/vocalist for The Dabbers. “That kind of culture takes a long time to build. It takes so much trust and earned respect from the community and musicians. You can’t just replicate that overnight.”
It’s also especially nerve-wracking. The iconic nature of such a venue means a hefty dose of pressure on local musicians to live up to the stage they’ve grown up worshipping.
“All I know is that when I finally got a show there,” Marina said, “probably sometime in 2000, I was so nervous I was shaking. All I could think about was that Nirvana had played there and that it was a legendary club. To this day, I get nervous playing the Casbah even though it’s been many years.”
Wentz agreed: “Oh gosh, I’m nervous before every show! I have intense stage fright and anxiety. When we play the Casbah, that is elevated because I have so much respect for that stage and the bands who have played there. I feel I have to bring it even harder.”
“I remember I had like 10 pages of notes printed out in super huge print so I could still see it in the dark light of the projections behind us, just in case,” said Rebecca Antuna, keyboardist for KATA, about her first show at the Casbah.
Marina, who left San Diego after being signed, added, “I live in New York City. I can’t really think of anyplace here like the Casbah. I’m still looking for a place that makes me really nervous.”
Marina felt like her career as a female musician in San Diego was somewhat paved for her. “Had I not had the boyfriends or the male friends who were very well-connected in the music scene, there is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that I would have had a much more difficult time,” she said.
“I definitely feel like I’ve had to work twice as hard [as men] to gain the place I have in the scene,” said Gillespie Feller, “but for the most part the Casbah has treated me decently and professionally.” Despite women playing in many bands in San Diego’s musical history, they historically did not front as many acts as they do today. And, she said, “there’s this weird cultural lag with the bookers and sound guys and bartenders who aren’t used to dealing with women.” She specifically noted the Casbah as “being different.”
It’s hard to talk about – and love – the Casbah without also talking about its weirdness and its place for outsiders, whether misfits or just those outside of the historically male-centric idea of a San Diego music insider.
“The Casbah embodied that spirit of the underdog, I think, of rock ’n’ roll,” said Marina. “Being booked there meant I had some kind of lovely weirdness he saw and wanted others to see.”
“It made me feel like there was this space where you could experiment and grow and have an audience, whether you are the Melvins or some really weird kids,” said Gillespie Feller. “I still feel that way. I hope it stays like that forever.”