POW! are the synth punks escaping San Francisco

SF once had a thriving scene of scuzzy rock bands – but gentrification has chased it all the way to LA.

At first, when that was going down, it was a shock. And it was too bad because we started to see the effect of what had happened to the community.” Byron Blum, vocalist and guitarist of the duo POW!, is reflecting on the San Francisco garage-punk scene’s mass exodus to LA. Everybody just had to move.”

Before tech industry-driven gentrification drove a lot of the crowd out of town, San Francisco was a welcoming hotbed of raw punk, gritty psychedelia and scuzzy garage. There was a DIY community of jean jacket-strapped music fanatics who were obsessed with punk authenticity and defying the rockstar egos of 00s groups like The Strokes.

Blum spent years immersing himself in the scene. He would frequent an infamous leather daddy bar called The Eagle Tavern that had shows of this nature – quirky, queer, and inclusive – every Thursday night. It was there that he saw bands like Shannon and the Clams, Ty Segall, and Oh Sees before they were internationally adored for their exhilarating takes on the rock n’ roll template.

Blum met POW! drummer Melissa Blue (who would switch to synths after their first album) at an LA garage rock festival in 2010 called Party Out West (POW). Once Blum returned to San Francisco, where he had resided his entire life, he ended up spontaneously running into Blue two times in one evening. The magic of their paths crossing felt too good to pass up on, so they decided to start a band together and name themselves POW!; an ode to their place of origin, and a fitting onomatopoeia for the hard-hitting music they’d end up making.

Blum remembers the SF scene’s early years fondly. Ty [Segall] was just starting out as a one-man-band and there was just, like, three people in the room,” he tells me. And Oh Sees were just starting to fill the rooms, they were half empty… It felt like a moment, and now looking back, it was a moment.” This was in the late 00s, just as Castle Face Records, the label of Oh Sees frontman and SF vet John Dwyer, was beginning to establish itself. I was, like, damn if I was to make an album I would love it to come out on Castle Face, just to be a part of that family tree.”

He got his wish. The label released POW!’s 2014 debut Hi-Tech Boom, an ironic reference to their decidedly lo-fi sound (the album was recorded on a Tascam 388 cassette recorder) and a play on the Silicon Valley tech boom that was happening in their neighbourhoods at the same time.

POW! performing in San Francisco. Image credit: Amelia Sechman

As companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook began attracting swaths of young professionals to San Francisco in order to be close to their headquarters, rent prices soared astronomically throughout the entire city. In the SOMA neighbourhood, which is where The Eagle Tavern was located (it’s since closed and reopened but is no longer the garage-rock hub it once was), rent climbed roughly 25% between 2011 and 2013. As prices continued to rise throughout the next few years, many of POW!’s musical peers had to relocate to LA, where Blum says the price of a three-bedroom is roughly equivalent to that of a studio in SF.

POW!’s addition of noisy, industrial synths to the traditional garage-rock formula felt distinctive in the guitar-centric scene, and it conveniently sounded like a musical interpretation of the area’s weirdo art community being infiltrated by new-age tech. In the record’s press bio, Dwyer even dubbed the album, a punk eulogy to our fair city.” However, in hindsight, Blum has isn’t entirely comfortable about the way the record was framed.

At first when the album came out, I feel like a lot of people kind of went with that angle of, like, oh these guys hate tech and shit’. Whereas, I actually really love technology,” he says. I see the silver lining and maybe some of these new technologies are super inspiring and could be amazing for artists. For example, like, blockchain technologies. [I’m] totally excited about that future. More equality and prosperity for everyone, versus just a select few.”

Pow in LA. Credit James Sakert.

POW!’s new album Shift– also released via Castle Face – isn’t necessarily a response to their physical transplant, but a reflection on the inevitability of transformation. This was echoed in the record’s process itself, as it was a return to POW!’s raw and uninhibited creative form. I definitely wanted to bring it back to the way we recorded our first one,” he says, commenting that their 2017 album Crack an Egg felt bogged down by his own perfectionism. I wanted to get back to more of a punk rock way of recording. Which is the limitations. Only having X amount of tracks to work with, and just leaving it up to the moment and what’s happening to give that a guide for where to go, versus having a preconceived idea beforehand.”

Although Blum still feels a strong kinship with his beloved birthplace of SF, he says he’s fortunate to live in an affordable spot in Mt. Washington in northeast LA, just up the road from Blue. The main difference between LA and the tight-knit SF scene, Blum notes, is that you have to drive to get around. But he optimistically points out to the sprawling scope lends itself to warehouse venues and other DIY spots that aren’t feasible in SF anymore.

Dwyer himself moved out to LA a few years back, so having the Oh Sees gang and their litany of side-projects around, as well as Blum’s girlfriend’s band Automatic, makes it feel closer to home. POW!’s loud and wonky music is by the fringes and for the fringes, so to him, being priced out by the presiding capitalist class isn’t unexpected. There’s no fuckin’ perfect place,” he shrugs. And Shift, a record about adaptation, is proudly aware of that.

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