Moving here three years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. Sitting on a pillow, doing my best to see over the wheel of a 20’ moving truck I barreled down from Boston to Syracuse to Richmond, I arrived sleep-deprived and sore from carrying boxes to break into the apartment where my new landlord had forgotten to leave out keys. Like so many transplants before me, Richmond was attractive because it offered change, something familiar but not, a city where I could afford to fail. For two months, until the college where the teaching job I had secured began the semester where I was needed, I was unemployed and unknown, save the three friends I brought down from upstate New York. Broke and restless, armed with more free time than I will ever have again in my adult life, I ran my finger down the list of shows played across town, behind the doors of houses and venues I had no idea about, and just went.
This article was featured in RVAMag #27: Winter 2016. You can read all of issue #27 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
“Any night of the week, you can pick a show with a list of bands you’ve never heard of and go hear amazing music,” Tim Falen yells, loudly enough to be heard over the crush of people surrounding us. Strolling onto the back patio at taco bar Don’t Look Back, Falen stands tall against the red stringed lights, trademark jean jacket and button down shirt (never a t-shirt, he learned from his father) almost hidden underneath a waterfall of classic rocker hair. Adjusting the prescription-less glasses he sports these days, Falen sits down at the picnic table worn smooth, unabashedly surveying the stream of people in and out of the tiny space as we speak.
Coming here seven years ago with the other members of electrified folk band Diamond Center, Falen related to that experience. Getting out into the music scene was a given, seeing as Diamond Center needed to make connections to be able to book shows, but beyond that Falen remembers being impressed by the quality of music here. Here, new local bands will “literally go out of town to play shows just to get tight enough to come back and play their first home gig” he laughs, stubbing out a cigarette in a cheap plastic ashtray. When the audience is going to be made up of members from so many other bands, “you can’t really afford to suck.”
Living in a city that gave the world Gwar, Lamb of God, and Sparklehorse, among countless others, one would assume there is no shortage of good music still being played. And while that is true, the fundamental difference between this town’s music scene then and now is not just the quality of the music, but the connectivity that is a hallmark of Richmond music. “Before, and elsewhere, the people are not as together,” explained Falen, noting that plenty of good music is played in little pockets all over the country, but the feeling has never been as cohesive for him as it is here. Remembering his own move into Richmond, the other musicians and fans then, Falen leans forward in a moment of seriousness, citing the “elimination of a singular mindset” as the motivation for bands “not piggybacking on others’ art, but promoting one another.” Falen drives home the point matter of factly by saying “young bands shouldn’t have to know everything” before they play their first show.
“He just came up to us after seeing us play and asked if we wanted to make a tape,” said Nathan Grice, one half of the duo Big No. Under hanging plants and band posters, Grice reclined in his living room, mug of hot tea in hand, while Heather Jerabeck, his partner, cutely wrapped a small birthday gift for a neighbor down the street. Though Grice had lived in Richmond as a student, he and Jerabeck relocated to the city several years ago from California. After meeting a few people at shows, and putting together a few for their own band, they met Falen, who by then was playing in multiple other bands, and who also had taken over the tape label Bad Grrrl Records.
When Falen joined up with Bad Grrrl in 2014, the label was struggling, almost nonexistent, and since then Falen has taken on virtually every role necessary to see it survive. “It’s a way to take home a physical reminder, some tangible media, from the show you went to the night before,” Falen drawls through drags off a cigarette, as “digital media doesn’t create memories.” In an age where renting a movie means Amazon.com allowing access for 24 hours before the film magically disappears again, walking away from a show with the band in hand is not as much as a nostalgic action as it is a connective one, putting you back into the music, into the energy of the show, time and time again. Tapes, like a live show, capture the “natural imperfection of music, and that’s what makes [them] good.” In a local scene punctuated with small bands that may never go far beyond our city limits, creating tapes as physical reminders of a show binds together those people, those Richmonders who live and work in this city with those of us who will go to a house show on a Tuesday to see, hear, and love an amazing band.
With her pixie hair and laugh that almost seems to catch her by surprise, RM Livingston of Atta Girl echoes Grice’s words in remembering how her band came to cut a tape with Bad Grrrl. After hearing the band at a show one night, Falen simply asked if they would like to make a tape. As a younger band, Atta Girl had only six songs they were ready to record, and a tape made the most sense. “Vinyl is expensive,” Livingston succinctly explains in between offering bites of her barbeque tofu. “Touring and putting out a record isn’t as much an option for us,” she says; at only six songs, a 12” would have to be played at 45 RPM, and a 7” would be crowded. “I like 78’s, but who really plays those anymore?” she laughs, eyes squinting in the evening sun. For bands like Atta Girl, who spring up in the Richmond scene and play mostly at local venues, creating a tape could be the first, if not primary, way to get music into the hands of patrons who loved their shows.
For all that tapes give a fiscally sound alternative to vinyl or CD for a small band, it is really the underlying sense of community and camaraderie that drive a scene so niche, so focused that keeps Falen working in “tape jail” night after night. After working a job that basically pays for the label, Falen comes home to sit with his computer, tape duplicator, and scissors to put together the product. “Most of what I do is cut paper,” he laughs, pushing buttons on the tape deck, setting up the run, before settling in to, indeed, cut the labels out for a run of Big No cassettes. With his beloved dog Pearl at his feet, Falen runs the label out of his living room crowded with amps, drums, and guitars in between working, going to shows, and playing drums and bass for his own current bands: Bad Magic, Lady God, and Ultra Flake.
The spirit of goodwill for the music community that keeps Falen knee deep in paper and tape shells drives the label and also the relationships built between bands, Falen, and fans. Though he may not see it this way, Falen works tirelessly to thread together these relationships and has been one of many driving factors in shaping the music scene in Richmond as it stands today, one of support and love between most bands. Small labels like Bad Grrrl fill a hole in the support structure of a solid music scene, as band members would have to have access to all this other gear and time and money to put out non-digital music unless they were signed to a bigger label and had more of a catalog from which to choose tracks. “It’s not easy to get stuff pressed,” Falen notes, “and bands can’t always eat the media cost on top of everything else.” Further, as Jerabeck notes, she appreciates having a tape because “otherwise, what physical reminder of the band would [Nathan and I] have?”
Fun work though it is, Falen bears the brunt of Bad Grrrl almost alone, yet views his contribution in a detached, obvious way, framing the label as falling in line with what others have done and continue to do here. Strange Matter, for example, “would not be as awesome as it is without Mark Osbourne, who books good bands inclusively and doesn’t adhere to a type or genre.” Having a local station like WRIR, which is completely volunteer-based and strongly affiliated with local music, gives musicians, tech people, writers, and countless others the chance to try out ideas, to promote a band that is so new their set is 10 minutes, but it is a rad 10 minutes. In a setting like that, “you do what you can, give what you can, until you get too busy or burnt out and take a break; they’ll still be there when you’re ready to come back.” The competition and pettiness that can fracture music in other cities does not play well here. Band members turn out for other shows, put newer acts on their bills; graphic designers and artists donate their time to create posters; writers cover shows and albums and bands, and all is done with a sense of community. In Richmond, Falen says, “music is a cared-for thing.”
As I sat with Falen on the back porch of Don’t Look Back that night, talking with him about the label and music we love over whiskey drinks and cigarettes, we were slowly joined by the night crowd filtering in as parents and their kids went home from dinner, as little groups of colleagues trying out being real-world friends picked up suit jackets slung over chairs during Happy Hour drinks, and soon were surrounded by musicians and fans, people somehow affiliated with Falen. As the sun went down and the porch lights came on, James Wingo and Matt Fottrell, half of alternative band Sungazer, came to shake hands and slap Falen on his jean-jacketed shoulder, settling in a few tables away but soon unable to not contribute to our conversation. The guitarist and bassist for Falen’s former band Clair Morgan sat down beside us, telling stories from their weeks and asking about ours while Clair Morgan himself made us all drinks behind the bar.
What started as an interview gradually devolved back down into what happens out there so many nights: the familiar narrative of ridiculous jokes, old show stories, and our lives. As I watched Falen throw his head back in his loud, staccato laugh at a mention of how he once was thrown out of the bar for using the fire extinguisher, I could not help but see the self-proclaimed Nihilist, the man whose love for his dog is legendary, the man who jokes about eating Wendy’s Baconators and how it doesn’t matter what he eats because nothing matters, as the same man in the midst of what he has helped to foster. Running a tape label on his own, working to promote small, new bands who maybe do not have the funds, or maybe are so new to being in a band at all that they are not even sure how to start, Falen aims to bolster a scene long-lived in Richmond, one that has in the past been fractured by jealousy or detachment as any creative aspect of a city can be, but has actually worked to help form something even tighter, even bigger than he would potentially believe: a family.
Words by Laura Confer