It quickly becomes clear during a stroll down the crowded streets of Isla Vista on a Friday or Saturday night (or most any night) that hip-hop and EDM dominate the town’s soundscape. But occasionally scattered among the ubiquitous, booming speakers are live performances of a markedly different style — a style more in tune with the vibes and character of the town.
Performed at late-night open mics at coffee shops and jam-packed backyard concerts, the music produced by I.V. residents themselves tends toward the carefree attitude of sunshine reggae and the deep and personal sentiments of the indie singer-songwriter. Over the decades, I.V.’s been as prolific in its creation of musical artists as any half-square-mile of land can be; soft-rocker Jack Johnson, reggae chart-toppers Iration and Rebelution, and EDM (electronic dance music) star Steve Aoki all trace their musical origins to their time in I.V.
The town’s influence on these artists’ music is unmistakable: Iration’s “Summer Nights,” for one, is entirely about its members’ memories of chilling in I.V.; the tar balls covering Johnson’s wife’s “bubbly toes” could only have come from the gunk continuously washing up on the town’s rugged shore.
“It’s a small town, but it’s just filled with people the same age that share the same love for the beach, same love for having a good time, same respect for nature, and just working hard, and then playing hard on the weekends,” said Matthew Tweed, the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist for The Olés, who combine reggae, rock, rap, and brass instruments. The band, which recorded a first LP in their home on Sabado Tarde Road, started out playing for friends during the drinking game Snappa before putting on increasingly bigger backyard concerts.
Like their internationally famous predecessors, today’s generation of I.V.-born artists, including The Olés, indie rockers Yancellor Chang, and singer-songwriter Erisy Watt, draw on the people, environment, and ethos of the community to produce music.
“People were really, really responsive and said such kind things about our music, so I just thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to keep going with this’,” said soft-folk artist Watt, whose first performance came at an open mic at Coffee Collaborative with a friend from her residence hall.
On top of the ample opportunities residents and local businesses and organizations offer for performances and the close proximity within which potential collaborators live, the scenic beauty surrounding I.V. has been another source of inspiration.
“I have these spots that I go to, like at the point where Sands [Beach] is and Devereux, and then I’ll run out to Ellwood, where the butterfly preserve is, and there’s this eucalyptus cave where all these eucalyptus trees create this really beautiful cave shape where you could go out and look at the whole coast,” said Watt.
Despite I.V.’s hedonistic reputation, many of the artists who have emerged from its vibrant creative scene look to fuse their work with a socially and environmentally conscious mission.
“I.V. has such a great community, and there are a lot of people that are very environmentally aware,” said Watt, who plans on shaping an eventual tour around community outreach and fundraising for nonprofits. “That’s kind of the experience that I’ve had there — that I want to then kind of spread outward to wherever I go with my music.”
But despite I.V.’s prolific musical history, there exist concerns that efforts to tame the frenetic environment that has given birth to yesterday’s and today’s artists could stifle the tradition.
Brad Katz, a guitarist from the now-broken-up reggae/rock group Yancellor Chang, says he’s witnessed a marked increase in law enforcement’s willingness to discourage and shut down I.V. concerts for even the smallest potential infractions.
“I don’t know a better thing to do with a lot of drunk people than to put them in an area where they’re facing a stage and not being in trouble,” he said.
The success of I.V. bands has carried over to bookings in nearby towns and around the world. Artists like Watt, The Olés, Yancellor Chang, and surf rockers Sun Daes and Dante Elephante have all jammed at Santa Barbara venues such as Blind Tiger, Velvet Jones, and SOhO, and, of course, Iration, Rebelution, and Jack Johnson have played there and way, way beyond.
Both Watt and The Olés are preparing to release new music by the end of the year. In the next few months, Watt looks to release her first EP, while the reggae-rockers are expecting to release their upcoming LP, Strictly Speaking, mastered by Grammy-winner Brian Gardner, before the end of the year.