It was during our second noontime meeting at the Dutch Garden in late January when John Nygren divulged the super-duper-secret secret that he’d been hinting at for the past week, since our last lunch of sausage and German beer in the low-ceilinged hangout on upper State Street. “So here’s the deal,” he said, leaning in to me, lowering his voice, looking over our shoulders. “We’re releasing the album on a bottle of beer.”
I sat back, took a quick swig of my cloudy ale, and digested what immediately sounded to me like the best idea in the world, at least in the culturally complementary worlds of music and beer. “Wow, that is pretty cool,” I said, now looking over my shoulders, having already spotted some music fans I know in the restaurant. “Why hasn’t anyone else done that before?”
The handful of other people who knew the secret at that time asked exactly the same question, including Brian Thompson, the owner of Telegraph Brewing Company on Salsipuedes Street, where the anointed ale was being made (and where I’d first met Nygren by complete coincidence a few weeks earlier). They feared possible hang-ups with the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), a notoriously by-the-book agency that must approve all wine, beer, and liquor labels, thereby controlling what sort of ideas can happen, and which cannot.
In March, though, the TTB signed off on the label, meaning that Nygren’s band Buellton — which first formed in Santa Barbara in the late 1990s and made some serious waves in the West Coast indie rock scene but then faded into obscurity until now — will be releasing their nearly six-years-in-the-making sophomore album, Silent Partner, as a digital download on a bottle of Telegraph’s saison-style ale. “I was enthusiastic from the moment we discussed it,” said Thompson. “Beer and music go together in every way imaginable.”
The pairing of music with another product is uncommon but not completely novel: In April 2011, the Flaming Lips released a five-song EP called Gummy Song Skull for $150 inside a collectible gummy skull; in 2012, Taylor Swift’s RED album was released alongside a themed pair of red Keds shoes. And since there was a small songs-via-bottle release available only in Portland two years ago, Buellton can’t quite claim to have invented the first music-meets-beers project ever. But, with a coast-to-coast rollout planned in the numerous markets where Telegraph already exists, Silent Partner marks the first full-length, nationally distributed version of album-on-ale model. And the ensuing buzz is expected to trigger a wave of copycats, from small bands with craft brewers to big names with corporate brands.
Beyond that, Nygren and his Buellton cohorts — all of whom are approaching middle age, most with wives, kids, and full-time day jobs — may be cracking a new code on how part-time musicians unable to embark on a lengthy concert tours can still succeed without the support of a record label. Via Telegraph’s distribution network (which includes California, New York, Illinois, Arizona, and Washington state), and the publicity that will come from both the drink and music press, Buellton could attract enough national attention to fuel another album or two, if not a sustainable career.
Certainly, the targeted audience is narrower than what a major label offers, but it’s likely to be a dedicated one, since craft brew fanaticism is only surging in popularity. That’s just part of what’s arguably the greatest modern trend in American culture: people of all sorts increasingly digging products that are personal, thoughtful, hand-crafted, and made in small, unique batches — which is exactly the kind of album that Silent Partner is, the result of a half-decade of ups and downs for many of the players, and of starts and stops that often seemed like the end. In that way, the pairing works on many levels.
Nygren credits the Santa Barbara–raised, Los Angeles–residing musician Marko DeSantis, of the band Sugarcult, for planting the seed during a meeting last year. “I was almost saying it to be facetious,” recalled DeSantis, who teaches music-business classes at Musicians Institute in Hollywood and Citrus College in Glendora. Excited that his idea took root, DeSantis holds it up as a prime example of how music-industry creativity doesn’t stop at clever songs anymore; it extends into marketing, as well.
“The more you approach middle age and the more boutique your music is, the more your music becomes equivalent to craft beer — it’s about quality over quantity,” said DeSantis last week, phoning in as he drove through L.A. “It’s not all about the music. It’s about the cultural experience. The music is the centerpiece, but the way the music is delivered has become so much a part of the experience. And what better way to experience music than by opening a bottle of beer, listening while you drink it, and then having a bottle as a memento to hold onto?”
Buellton emerged out of the post-punk, prog-rock indie scene that ruled Santa Barbara in the mid- to late-1990s. Originally from Orange County, Nygren, who first came to Santa Barbara to study philosophy at Westmont in the early 1990s, sang and played guitar in a band called Brown, and their album eventually found its way to the ears of Eric Herzog, thanks to mutual friend Tad “Tbone” Wagner. A third-generation local who’d been playing drums in bars since before he was 21, Zog, as he’s known, was in a band called Wasted Tape with childhood friend John Askew and Bruce Winter, who’d just returned from years of touring with Toad the Wet Sprocket. Brown and Wasted Tape disintegrated at about the same time, so Zog called up Nygren on his mom’s landline and invited him to jam.
By 1999, Nygren had moved to town and started working with Zog and Tbone at the Wine Cask’s old warehouse on Haley Street, where they were allowed to turn an unused room into a small recording studio. They named the makeshift space “Buonapasta,” an ode to a nearby pasta-making factory. Nygren and Zog started writing songs together. Tbone tackled guitar and began exploring a nascent interest in production. “He starts pushing some buttons, and next thing we knew, we needed some lead parts,” said Nygren. “That’s how the nucleus happened.” From the remnants of Brown, in came bassist Cliff Hayes and multi-instrumentalist Andrew “JKO” Giacumakis.
Still a relative Santa Barbara newbie, Nygren spotted the city named Buellton on a street sign in Goleta, thought it sounded “cool,” and the group was christened, in the grand tradition of naming bands after fairly meaningless things. They upped the ante by calling the album Avenue of the Flags (a nod to Buellton’s main drag) but still thought the connection more of a curiosity, having ambitiously thought that their reach would go far beyond the Central Coast, leaving the origins of both band name and album a mystery. (This was pre-pervasive Internet.)
In 2001, Buellton released Avenue of the Flags on John Askew’s Portland-based FILMguerrero label, and quickly rave reviews from national magazines and websites started pouring in. (The record even received four stars from AllMusic.com, which was rather selective in even mentioning bands.) Buellton toured California and the Pacific Northwest a couple of times, opening for Death Cab for Cutie, Rilo Kiley, and My Morning Jacket (although the latter had yet to achieve their current fame). But Nygren was already wondering whether the road life was for him. “Gee,” he recalled thinking, way before wives and kids and full-time jobs came on their scene, “is this how I want to spend my time, in a van with some smelly dudes?”
I found myself happy, which was kind of bizarre, and I was wanting to do other things besides hole up in my bedroom and make music.”
From 2002-2003, Buellton tried to make a second record, but Nygren had fallen in love with an art teacher from Midland School near Los Olivos named Faith Thornton. “I was always the edge-of-the-bed, sulking-about-relationships songwriter,” he explained. “I found myself happy, which was kind of bizarre, and I was wanting to do other things besides hole up in my bedroom and make music.” The well ran dry, and Nygren had no inclination to fill it up.
By 2004, Buellton was officially on hiatus, but the other members kept at it: Winter went into composing in Los Angeles, Tbone kept producing, and Zog and JKO went on to form the metal band Moab, which is about to go on tour with Fu Manchu. Meanwhile, Nygren started working at SB Mailworks, which he now co-owns, and married Faith. Eventually the pair moved to Midland School, where two things happened to set Buellton back on track: One, a faculty member gave Nygren an old piano that had been at the school for decades, and two, as copies of Avenue of the Flags made their rounds with the students, Nygren kept hearing positive feedback. “They razzed me,” he said of the kids. “I got the bug again.”
By 2008, most of the band was back together and recording at Buonapasta. That next year, with about half the album done, Haley Ashbury Studios moved in right next door, and the overflowing noise of practicing bands made laying down tracks difficult. Much more catastrophic, though, Faith was diagnosed with breast cancer that required both chemo and radiation. Buellton was again on indefinite hiatus, and this time they pulled the plug on Buonapasta, too. “It’s just bizarre driving past that place,” said Zog, who also endured a major back injury amid it all. “So much creativity went on in that little alley.”
With Faith’s treatment going as perfectly as possible, Buellton got back to recording in 2010. By 2011, the band was ready to mix album number two but wound up spending lots of time and money at various studios, from John Askew’s Scenic Burrows in Portland to Barak Moffitt’s SuperMaster Destructo in Venice Beach. Their democratic approach to songwriting was causing major delays. “It’s a very collaborative process, to its demise at times, but that’s just how it is,” said Nygren. “I wouldn’t encourage anybody to do it this way, but that’s just the way we do it.”
They brought the tracks back to Santa Barbara, wondering what to do, when, out of the blue, Winter sent Nygren a message on Facebook saying that he was back in town, done with composing, and ready to work with a band again. Nygren loved his engineering work on Avenue of the Flags, and Winter loved that album. “I’ve mixed a lot of records, but it’s one of the few that I’ve done that I kept listening to,” he recalled. Feeling “fucking lucky to have a great record to work on” after 11 years of composing, Winter spent most of 2012 mixing Silent Partner at Craig Costigan’s Garage Mahal studio in Goleta.
By the time Nygren and Zog met with DeSantis in 2013, both Tbone (who is art director at the music-web company Oniracom) and JKO (who’s got kids and Moab to worry about) tapped out of touring, so Buellton picked up guitarist Curt Crawshaw (owner of Goleta screen-printing company Foundation Press) and bassist Graham Palmer (who plays with the Mad Caddies and makes wine under the Sforzando label). They had everything a band needs — booze, T-shirts, therapy (Zog became a school psychologist after his back injury), and publicity (via Nygren’s mail company). But DeSantis knew they needed a hook.
“You don’t have youth; you don’t have buzz that you’re the next big thing,” DeSantis told them, “but you do have documentable evidence that you were around back in the day, and the style of music you play has, in those intervening years, turned out to be the zeitgeist. But how do you make people give a fuck? Make a CD? I’m already half-asleep. Put it online for free? I’m fucking snoring.” Thinking out loud, DeSantis suggested releasing the album on a bottle of wine. Silence hit the table.
Nygren chewed on the idea, eventually accepting that it was okay to tie his creative baby to a sales gimmick, and realized that a bottle of craft beer made the most sense, price-wise. And since the only labels interested in the album required extensive touring, the album-on-ale release solved another problem. “I saw the beer idea as a way to circumvent that,” said Nygren, “to get the music out there and get it noticed without having to spend months on the road.”
Equally excited about the collaboration, Telegraph’s Thompson was surprised that Bud Light hadn’t yet teamed with Clint Black or, even more shocking, Phish hadn’t hooked up with one of the Vermont brewers to pull it off. So he set about making a saison-style ale — something “accessible yet interesting, like Buellton’s music” — and getting the label approved. “You can’t put it on the turntable and listen to it, but we’re really trying to make it as much of an album as a bottle of beer can be,” said Thompson. “I do think this could unleash a wave. I could easily see breweries and bands teaming up to promote both. There are so many cross-promotional opportunities here.”
In retrospect, the existing relationship between Nygren and Thompson, who first met in 2007, is really what paved the way. “The fact that Brian and I had our relationship before this happened was 50 percent of the battle,” said Nygren. “Otherwise, so many stars have to line up.”
Buellton’s first live show in more than a decade was on March 29 in Lompoc, followed by a show the next night at the Mercury Lounge in Goleta, which Nygren said “felt like a homecoming party.” They play again on Thursday, April 17, at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, with Glen Phillips and The Blues and Greys. The 750ml bottle of music and beer (which features the track listing, as well as a digital download code atop the cork) comes out the first week of May, a few weeks before the album is available on iTunes as a digital download.
A couple of weeks ago, Nygren finally got to taste the beer, a 7.4 percent light but flavorful ale that will retail for about $15. A discerning drinker, Nygren reports, “It’s rad. I’m super stoked.” And that’s critical to the success, of course. “The project could go sour if the music is bad or the beer is bad,” said Nygren, “but if they’re both pretty competent, people should take notice.”
Buellton plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club tonight, April 17, with Glen Phillips and The Blues and Greys at 8:30 p.m. The Silent Partner saison-style ale will be on draft and for sale in bottle at Telegraph Brewing Company’s new tasting room at 418 North Salsipuedes Street, which is open Tuesday-Thursday, 2-8 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 2-10 p.m., and Sunday, 1-7 p.m. See buelltonmusic.com and telegraphbrewing.com