Urban Sprawl: Hardcore in the Bay Area, Gentrification + More

Photo: Rob Coons

Ian Burris is an old friend who has spent many nights on my couch throughout the years, so when the guitarist told me about his band Urban Sprawl's debut demo came out, I naturally checked it out and was blown away. The following is an interview I did with Taylor, the vocalist of the California hardcore outfit. I’ve seen Taylor around at shows all over for the better part of a decade down here in Southern California. My bands (In Control, Response) have played with his and has always been a great guy to say what’s up to. This interview is not just about his band, but about hardcore, the bay area and some sociological issues we both ponder. If that bores you, fuck off.

Is this your first band not playing drums?

Yeah, around the same time we started this band where I played bass called Mothball. But not playing drums in a band was a big motivation for starting Urban Sprawl. 

Mothball sounds like something we will have to revisit later. But back to Urban Sprawl. The band has people from what seems to be an incredibly vibrant and prolific Bay Area scene. Who’s in it and what bands would we know them from?

Oh, definitely! There’s been times at practice where I look around and realize who all makes up this band and get really excited [laughs]. Jasmine plays bass and she played and plays in Tørsö, Neocons, No Babies, Siamese Twin, Neighborhood Brats, and Grrlilla Biscuits, which was an all-girl Gorilla Biscuits cover band. She’s easily one of the best bass players in the Bay. Ian plays guitar in Firearm, Blue Nun, and Mothball, and also played in a rad band from Santa Cruz called Lost Boys. Kurt plays drums in Mothball, Pencil Pusher, and Snooze. This is the first hardcore band he’s ever played drums in, which has been a lot of fun getting to experience all the gigs we’ve played from his perspective. Our guitarist Kwame recently moved here from New Jersey and played in Woundman, Manalive, and Trouble Maker.

I played drums in Profile, Stressors, and Secret People. I also play drums in a power pop band called Blue Nun with Ian. Jasmine is also in Composite and sings in Screaming Fist, which is the best current Bay Area band, in my opinion.

So, you form Urban Sprawl and make this hot demo. You’re playing some shows up and down California but considering how busy you all are, what do you hope to do with the group?

Basically, the band started when Kwame and I were hanging out before he moved to San Francisco and we both bonded over how much we loved Wasted Time. Specifically their last LP [Futility, 2009]. So, the goal has always been to come really close to ripping them off without anyone noticing [laughs]. Yeah, we’re definitely all really busy people. But with most our jobs and other bands we play in, there’s some flexibility. And it’s our hope to make it the most of this band without feeling burnt out or it being not fun. So, yeah, we’re playing some shows in Southern California at the end of January. We have a couple new songs in the works that I’d love to put out on a 7 inch at some point this year. Hopefully we'll get to the East Coast and do some international touring when the time is right and we’re ready.

I think the vibe I caught most is Violent Minds.

Woah! That was a huge influence of mine. The three bands I wanted to reference was Violent Minds, Dead Stop, and Wasted Time. I love Violent Minds so much. 

Take a snapshot of the Bay Area scene right now. How do you describe it?

The Bay Area scene is an overwhelming place, to say the least. For as long as I can remember, the Bay Area has never really had one unified scene. There’s always so many bands and people doing different things that it creates these little micro scenes that rarely cross over, which is a shame, in my opinion. Crossing the bridge into Oakland, or going to the South Bay, it's comprised of so many different people all playing different sounds. But with that being said, there’s so many awesome bands and people putting in work. On a single night, I often have to weigh my options on which shows I wanna go to. Which is pretty insane when a lot of cities can go months without a single show happening. Some of my favorite bands in the Bay are: Screaming Fist, Shit Coffins, Firearm, Primal Rite, Tørsö, Provoke, Gulch, Jawtruck, Marbled Eye, World Smasher, Cell Rot, and Mutilated Tongue.

It’s really hard to create a snap shot of what the bay is like when it’s made up of so many different little scenes. 

Do you feel that the gentrification taking place all over the bay has had effects on the hardcore and punk underground?
Yeah, absolutely. Before I get into that, I think it should be said that art and artist often lay the groundwork for gentrification by making an area more “desirable” to live. The reality is that in the United States it’s nearly impossible to live off your art. In order to do so, people often open art galleries or show spaces in lower class neighborhoods, which in turn makes areas more desirable to live. It causes more people to move the area, rent gets raised, and people get pushed out as a result. It’s really crazy to think about, but historically, the Bay Area is known to be this mecca of art, music, and progressive politics. But today, those values that so many people have moved here for are seriously dwindling away. Just in the past month or so, two venues in San Francisco have shut down. And there’s currently one all ages venue in San Francisco. There’s very few places surviving for people to create, let alone the weirdos like us who play punk music.

So, to put it in simpler terms, artists moving into an area are a harbinger of gentrification.

Yeah, they can be. It’s a really complicated problem that has many different factors. Obviously, huge businesses moving in and operating with little to no regulation play a huge role as well. To think of it in terms of the hardcore punk scene, shows and spaces are becoming scarce because the cost of living has been sky rocketing.

So, is it a coincidence that the band is called Urban Sprawl, one of the stages in the cycle of urbanization?

No, not at all. It was definitely intentional. I wanted the name to convey the feeling of living in the city. Where looking around you, you feel so small surrounded by so many people and influences that are far removed from your control. 

Photo: Jonathan Velazquez

Urban sprawl is definitely a byproduct of dense city living in places like San Francisco. What is the solution to big city centers pricing out long time residents?

Woah, that’s a hard one [laughs]. Give me a sec on that one. I have some thoughts I need to articulate. 
The easy answer is rent control but how do you get uber wealthy landowners to agree to that and how do you get probably uber wealthy politicians to pass that legislation?
To answer your question, yes, rent control is definitely the best solution. But, unfortunately, as you mentioned getting people who are rich landowners and politicians on board who have little to no concern for tenants other than what they gain. It’s a tough fight. Gaining rights for long time residents is highly impacted by the power of these politicians. Prop 10 not passing in California was pretty devastating for Tenants rights. But as we mentioned, that was heavily apposed and influenced by those who gain from the influx of people who are willing to pay way more for the bare minimum.

I think that there needs to be an overall cultural shift in appreciation of labor of all kinds that bring value to communities that are not based on monetary gain. Influences of teachers, social workers, community services, etc. and how they largely impact a community. I’m not sure what it could take to create that shift in attitude. But I feel it’s crucial step in order for politicians to even consider decentering themselves when it comes to the protecting the rights of all kinds of people and long time residents. 

Are these the kind of topics you deal with lyrically?

The song "415 Nightmare" touches upon these issues. I was inspired to write the lyrics walking down Howard St. one day. it’s a pretty grim reality of how severe the disparities of wealth are if you literally just take a moment to observe what’s around you. On one block you can see tent cities, people shooting up, while literal three feet to the right there’s fancy restaurants and cafes, giant building being built all around you, and people riding weird motorized longboards. There’s so much wealth but all of it is being placed in the hands of those who are of the top percentage of wealth. While little mind is paid to those who severely need it. 

Tell me a bit about your day job.

I’m actually a preschool teacher. I’ve been teaching and working with kids for the last 6 years. 

Do punks make better educators?

Not necessarily. I think a good educator is someone who is critical of their own work and the overall structure of education and is willing to do what they must in order to meet their students needs. Punk in its nature is questioning and critical of the status quo. Which in turn can relate to progressive practices that benefit students instead of the stand and deliver authoritarian teacher that we all hated. But I think that the ability to connect and be there for student is something that comes from many different places, not just punk. 

Do you think people are becoming desensitized to seeing others suffering, and how can a city supposedly as liberal as San Francisco be okay with that?
That’s hard to say. I feel as a whole we’ve become more self-centered and reclusive as a society. And with information and images constantly being shared at an insane rate, especially with the amount of bad news we’re faced with daily, I think it’s impact isn’t felt the same as it may have been before. I still feel that people feel empathy and connect with people who are suffering. It’s become so normalized that it almost feels hopeless. Especially in a city where you’re faced with a huge homeless population daily. Like I mentioned before, it’s so easy to feel small, with no control. I’m hopeful though that things are going to look up. Prop C thankfully passed despite the opposition from London Breed and Scott Weiner. Which would be a tax on business making over 50 million a year. Which would bring so much money for mental health facilities, affordable housing, and homeless shelters. 

What can a hardcore band do to change the world around them?

A hardcore band can be a model and an influence for greater change. I’ve always thought of a hardcore show as a place the feel validation in your feelings, fuel to take from a show into your daily life. But the real work has to be done outside of the walls of a show. 

I’ve always felt that even when a person “drops out” of hardcore or whatever, there’s a little piece that’s changed, where you perceive the outside world differently.

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like my perspective will forever be changed and informed by the bands I’ve been influenced by. 

Jasmine performing with Tørsö (Photo: Angela Owens) 

What bands have influenced you the most personally? 
Honestly, there’s been so many. Youth of Today made me feel okay that I couldn’t afford a leather jacket. Discharge informed my politics, Minor Threat made me wanna skate fast. But most of all, contemporary bands within the Bay Area made me realize that making music and being creative wasn’t an insane thing to do and made me feel welcome and validated when I felt like a total nerd.  The Nerve Agents I’d say where a huge band for me. They kind were my gateway to hardcore punk.

Is there a place in hardcore/punk for apolitical bands?

You know, I don’t think it’s really my place to say. Hardcore and punk have been around for a while now. It’s evolved in so many ways that I don’t really think there’s one way to do anything. Find whatever way feels right and do it. 

Better bands over history: East Bay or West Bay?

Oh, that’s tough. I’ll say this, East Bay has probably had more quality bands. But also more embarrassing bands as well. I’ll take Crucifix and Code of Honor over any band that sounds like Crimpshine. 

God, I’ll take Crucifix over just about every band to ever exist.

Same! One of the greatest bands of all time! Dehumanization is on par with Victim in Pain as far as I’m concerned.  
Dehumanization smokes Victim in Pain.

Tagged: urban sprawl