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Provo, Orem launch more acts onto U.S. stage than the rest of Utah

Published March 5, 2013 10:46 am

Music • Utah County's Neon Trees, Imagine Dragons leading the way; Fictionist, Joshua James, The Used also prominent nationally.
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The Used. Neon Trees. Fictionist. Joshua James. Imagine Dragons.

These are the most buzzed-about Utah bands to reach the national scene in the past decade. And while they have different styles of music, these acts share one commonality: Their ascending careers were born in Utah County.

The Salt Lake City music scene has always been a bustling one, with local bands Royal Bliss, Kid Theodore, King Niko and The Brobecks receiving significant regional attention in the past decade.

But when it comes to moving beyond regional success and selling out venues from Southern California to northern Maine, a Provo pedigree has proved more useful.

The Provo scene shows no sign of dormancy, with musicians such as Lindsey Stirling, Parlor Hawk, The Mimi Knowles Band, Chance Lewis, The Moth & The Flame, Faith Johnson, Book On Tape Worm, Eyes Lips Eyes, The New Electric Sound, Ryan Innes, Isaac Russell, Desert Noises and others making noise.

When University of Utah grad Kaskade makes records, he turns to Utah County for singers such as Mindy Gledhill and writing and production help from Finn Bjarnson, forsaking his onetime hometown for the fruits that have blossomed in Utah County.

Not bad for one of the most conservative areas in America.

Early influences • Corey Fox is the owner of the all-important Velour Live Music Gallery in the 100 block of University Avenue in Provo. He has owned the all-ages club since 2005 and has had a front-row seat as bands have begun and built up support on his stage.

"I have respect for a lot of bands and club owners in Salt Lake City," Fox said. "That being said, I do think there is something special happening in Provo."

There are many pieces to the puzzle, but Velour has played a big part in these successes.

"I would like to think part of it is because of the structure I have put in place, that I am a good judge of potential talent and a good motivator," he said, "but it really comes down to the talent and work ethic of the bands. That work ethic can create a domino effect. If one band sets the bar high, others will follow."

That domino effect serves not as a destroyer, but as an inspiration, Fox said.

"There is definitely a strong community feel in the Provo music scene, which is another reason for all the success," he added. "It's a small town with limited venues so bands know and support each other. To be honest, there is also a healthy dose of friendly competition between bands that has been very instrumental in the scene's growth as well."

Bands that have found success beyond Provo say the area offers them an atmosphere where they could thrive.

Bert McCracken is frontman of hard-rock band The Used, which signed a major-label deal in 2001 and has sold more than 3 million albums. He said the opening of Velour helped turn Utah County into a hot nerve center. "There wasn't a lot of places to play" before Velour, said McCracken, whose band began in Orem. Now, "there's a little more open-mindedness" in Provo to music.

"The music community is a testament to Corey," said Lindsey Stirling, who lived in Provo from 2005 to late last year and performed many times at Velour, as a solo artist and as a violinist supporting other musicians. She became a YouTube sensation while in Utah, with her violin mash-up videos drawing more than 226 million total views and 1.5 million subscribers.

American Fork musician Joshua James is the only home-grown artist in recent history to perform at the Salt Lake City Arts Council's popular Twilight Concert Series. He headlined a Seattle venue Thursday. "I love the passion Corey puts into Velour," said the folk-rock musician. "He is so supportive of local music and me. There is a community of supporting music in Provo. Go to Velour for a band you've never heard of, and there will be 200 people there. Go to Salt Lake City for a band that's well-known, and there will be 30 people there."

Kyle Henderson, frontman for the nationally touring alt-country band Desert Noises, said, "[Provo] is a great place because there's a lot of college kids forming bands at critical places in their lives. It's really awesome to be a part of that."

Muse joins in • A rising player in Provo is Muse Music Café, also in the 100 block of University Avenue. It has been around for about a dozen years, but new owners Debby Phillips and Darcie Roy took the reins in June. While they don't have the longevity of Taylor, they are opening eyes by providing a diverse lineup of local acts, including a heavy dose of hip-hop.

As an outsider who has only lived in Utah for about two years, Roy said the first Utah band she became aware of was new-wave revivalists Neon Trees, which has seen both of its full-length albums on Mercury Records become national smashes.

"Debby and I first learned of Provo through them," she said. "I met them while living on the East Coast, and Debby while traveling from her home base in California. While touring our respective sides of the country, both of us clearly saw how incredibly hard they were working at making their dream a reality. We both believe that drive and focus are what will get results. Talent and connections will give you a base, sure, but your success will be short-lived if you don't focus on the bigger picture."

The sense of community in Provo continues to excite Roy. "As far as recognition and applause go, I definitely feel a sense of Provo pride, and I know others do, too," she said. "While a city by definition, we definitely maintain a small-town feel, so when one of our own does something great, we feel a connection to it on a personal level."

North vs. south • Those who visit Velour or Muse sense the difference between those clubs and clubs in Salt Lake City. There is not only a community of bands, but a community of listeners. One example is the growing popularity of Provo's Rooftop Concert Series.

Fox acknowledges there are a lot of great, hard-working bands in Salt Lake and some good places to play, but his focus is different.

"Most clubs in Salt Lake are bars that either cater to national touring acts or are just looking to book local bands as fun entertainment for the bar crowd," he said. "In a bar-heavy scene, it's easy for bands to get in the routine of playing too often or just showing up and playing to built-in crowds."

Fox said Velour is different.

"My motivation was to create a stage where I could find local talent and push them to accomplish more," he said. "Also, being an all-ages venue, it forces bands to get creative with branding and promotion to draw people to the shows. It also serves as a great platform for the development of young artists who can't play at 21-and-over clubs."

One curious feature of the clubs in Provo is that there seems to be less distracting audience noise and more respect given to performers.

"Trust me, we have some shows filled with college freshmen that haven't figured that out yet," said Fox, "but yes, [respect] is one of our goals."

Fox said the absence of alcohol means the performance is the only focus of the crowd.

"We also consider Velour a 'listening room,' and we want the crowds to respect the performers and to respect their neighbors who are trying to listen," he said. "The crowd reaction in between songs can be greater because the crowd is actually fans of the band rather than random people socializing in a bar."

Some musicians say there is nothing worse than some dunce yapping in the background when you're playing. That's a reason to avoid Salt Lake City, which has developed a reputation for boisterous — and alcohol-soused — crowds.

Damien Jurado is a Seattle-based singer-songwriter who performs in Utah — but makes it a point to avoid Salt Lake City because he finds the crowds especially noisy.

"I haven't played Salt Lake City in a long time. I'd rather play Velour in Provo," Jurado said. "Most club-owners don't give a s—-. But Corey does. They appreciate people coming there. They have a great crowd."

The future • The question now is whether the hype over a particular Utah County "sound" will die down or help the state, proving to the rest of the country that Utah-grown bands have the talent and personality to appeal to people from Scranton, Pa., to Bakersfield, Calif.

"I don't think that you can define a Utah County 'sound' since most of these bands are succeeding in different genres of music, but I would definitely say that the Utah County music scene itself has been underhyped for sure, even in Provo," Fox said. "I honestly think that Provo could end up rivaling past music scenes in Seattle or Brooklyn and I'm just waiting for everyone to catch on. … [I] would definitely like to see more local awareness, pride and support."

Roy agreed. "I think Utah County music overall is underhyped," she said. "There is a tremendous amount of talent here."

Other Utah bands have differing opinions, but some look at the attention as a sign that national success can come to a band anywhere in the country.

"I'm constantly hearing 'If you want to make it, you have to move to L.A. or New York' or whatever. … I say that's nonsense," said Ransom Wydner, lead singer of Salt Lake City band King Niko. "Look at Neon Trees, Imagine Dragons, Kaskade, etc. We have an amazing culture of music here and Utah is gorgeous and a great place to find inspiration. Honestly, all that matters these days is delivering the goods. If you can turn out good music that affects people, do it and don't sweat geography."

King Niko guitarist Benjamin Moffat said Utah County may get more mainstream attention than Salt Lake City but great bands are coming out of both places. "It's essentially Coke versus Pepsi — the same poison with slightly different flavors."

The future is bright for all Utah bands. "Our neighbors to the south have turned out a lot of success, but I have a feeling Salt Lake will catch up," Wydner said.

"It's a little sad that there's so much separation between the two [because] it's only 45 minutes away from one another," Henderson said.

Roy agrees. She says a rising tide helps all boats.

"Artistic expression is a free-flowing thing and shouldn't be confined by cliques or labels," she said. "We'd love to see that same sense of community extend outward and eventually become a statewide attitude."


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