In a three-bedroom house scattered with mounted empty liquor bottles, a stuffed raven, a broken big-screen TV and a dried-out Christmas tree lives the local rock trio Mostly Bears.
The band, comprised of Tucson natives, played its first show just one year ago and has captivated local audiences with its expressive, progressive rock that shows flashes of acts as disparate as Radiohead, Mars Volta, Talking Heads and Queens Of The Stone Age.
Signed to local label Funzalo Records, Mostly Bears will release its eclectic, solid, new four-song EP, "Only Child," Friday night at Club Congress.
The band members say they have ultimate goals of playing packed clubs across the country and influencing future musicians.
They also want to help push Tucson a step closer to joining the ranks of nationally recognized music scenes in Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore.
"If a couple of bands could break from here," Mostly Bears lead singer and guitarist Brian Lopez, 24, mused, "it's just going to break open a whole scene."
Tucson has long been regarded as an inexpensive, under-the-radar, open-minded, university town where it's easy for a new band to get its first gig. Individual artists and groups have had breakout success over the years, but some say Tucson's music scene is inching toward the transition from rising to arriving.
As evidenced in Austin, the success of a city's arts and music community can lead to more opportunities. It also can have an economic payoff. The annual South by Southwest music festival and conferences, for example, brought an estimated $43.5 million into Austin this year, according to the SXSW Web site.
Austin's ascension as the "Live Music Capital of the World" was achieved with major help from its musical acts, said Brent Grulke, creative director of South by Southwest. Grulke oversees the booking of some of the nation's most promising and talented musicians for the annual industry-rich festival every March.
An Austinite since 1979, Grulke has seen the city progress from a small, artsy community like Tucson to a cultural epicenter nationally renowned for, among other things, the quality of its local music.
"I don't think it's something you can force," Grulke said. "It's more the efforts of a large community who's willing to work together."
Travis County, which includes Austin, had an estimated 921,000 residents in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Pima County reached 1 million residents this year.
Tucson boasts venues that were talked up nationally last year by popular indie acts such as The Hold Steady and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. It's also home to quality, determined young groups that support each other.
"A lot of things are happening now," said Jake Bergeron, 26, drummer for The Deludes and founder of local music label Mudhouse Records.
Among the many talented and exciting bands in town, The Deludes and Mostly Bears are two acts that, besides consistently playing downtown shows, have both the talent and the ability to draw fans, along with Golden Boots, The Swim, Chango Malo and The Holy Rolling Empire.
Other talented Tucson acts include The Solace Brothers, Nick Luca, Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout, The Okmoniks, Tom Walbank and the Ambassadors, Al Foul, Ryanhood, Shark Pants, Found Dead on the Phone, The Iods, Marianne Dissard Naïm Amor and The Provocative Whites.
The Deludes, which formed in 2002, recently secured an advertising deal with national fast-food chain Wendy's for its song "Blessed Be, Queen of Darkness." The folky Golden Boots, formed in 2002, will open a national tour with Chicago's Magnolia Electric Co. in August. Chango Malo has recently signed with Pennsylvania's Inchworm Records. It's set to release its new album, "The Whiskey Years," next month.
"We've got the talent," said local radio DJ Don Jennings, who hosts a weekly radio show on KXCI (91.3-FM) devoted to local music. "It always seems like there's an ebb and flow in the local music scene. And it almost feels like we're starting to peak again."
There's no short list of hardworking bands in Tucson that have lived and died in local clubs over the years, overcome by factors like geography, economics, motivation, Tucson's transitory lifestyle and name recognition of our city.
"A lot of times, people think Tucson is in Arkansas," Golden Boots' Dimitri Manos said.
Other bands from Tucson have broken national, from the hardcore thrash of The Bled and American Black Lung— both veterans of the Warped Tour— to dust-rockers Calexico.
Yet while these acts are helping to raise awareness of the Old Pueblo, they either cater to niche markets or don't have similar peers to pull with them.
You could almost say it's a Tucson tradition to have overseas success. Veteran, beloved acts such as Giant Sand and Bob Log III may sell thousands of CDs in Europe but are still not exactly on the forefront of American consciousness. And Linda Ronstadt, the biggest music name to come from Tucson, reached her success in the 1970s after leaving for Los Angeles.
Seemingly, one of Tucson's big shots came in the '80s, when garage bands were in abundance. The Sidewinders, which included singer David Slutes and guitarist Rich Hopkins, released "Witchdoctor," in 1989 and watched it break into the Billboard 200. The band later changed its name to Sand Rubies and fell apart in the early '90s around the same time Phoenix-area bands like Gin Blossoms began taking off.
"There's been times when it just seems like (the Tucson music scene) is going to explode," said Slutes, who has booked local and national acts as Club Congress' entertainment director since 1996. He's planning a live retrospective of Tucson bands, as far back as the in '70s through today, for the club's annual Labor Day celebration.
In 2003, Blender Magazine ranked Tucson as No. 18 of the nation's 20 "Most Rock And Roll Towns." Blender, which calls itself "the ultimate guide to all things awesome about music," said, "Tucson's reputation as a music oasis is growing," and cited Teddy Morgan (who has since moved to Nashville, Tenn.), Chris Holiman, Bob Log III, Al Perry and the Cattle, and Love Mound as proof.
"High And Dry: Where the Desert Meets Rock 'n' Roll," Los Angeles-based documentarian Michael Toubassi's award-winning, full-length movie, which premiered officially in 2006, profiled the last 20 years of Tucson music. The film has been shown at Paste Magazine's Rock 'N' Reel Festival in Decatur, Ga.; Los Angeles; Chicago; Portland, Ore.; Toronto; and Europe.
When Toubassi, 32, has shown "High And Dry" outside of the Southwest, he says, the first reaction of many of its viewers is surprise. "Most people say, 'I didn't know there was a scene in Tucson,'" he said. "We're really trying to open up just that first door."
Toubassi said he was inspired by his love of artists such as Howe Gelb, Giant Sand and Al Perry. Gathering interviews and performance footage from the Tucson music scene beginning in 1999, Toubassi spent about five years on the project. The general conclusion of the film, according to Toubassi, was that Calexico was to become the next big band out of Tucson, which is basically what happened.
Recently, Chango Malo and The Beta Sweat have invigorated the community. Both groups were invited to play South by Southwest: Chango in 2005 and Beta Sweat in 2006.
Grulke said it's very difficult for a band to secure an official spot at SXSW, and that selectors look past the music for traits like, say, a band's desire to make a living at their craft.
While Chango is set to release its new album in August, Beta Sweat broke up earlier this year.
Keeping a band together is tough, especially so in a transitory town like Tucson, with bands and musicians constantly coming and going.
For instance, The Deludes' original drummer, Ryan Nixon, quit the band before a show in May. Bergeron, former drummer for The Beta Sweat, stepped in shortly after.
Sometimes the easy-come, easy-go nature of Tucson is an advantage, though.
Golden Boots is a band comprising mostly Tucson transplants from New Jersey, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania. The two founders of The Swim, Caleb Chambers and Colton Ryan Harris, both moved here from Prescott.
Geographic separation is another big thing — the nearest major music markets are Los Angeles (roughly 485 miles away) and Austin (some 893 miles.)
Being so far away can be challenging for a local band.
"This stage right now is the hardest stage," said Mostly Bears bassist Geoffrey Hidalgo, 22. "You have to pay your own gas, buy your own strings and sticks every day."
Mostly Bears is focusing on achieving regional success first, by playing shows in Tucson and around Arizona before trying to tour in California and New Mexico.
Band members are making ends meet with day jobs such as lifeguarding, while putting most of their focus on the music, with hopes of recording a full-length album in the fall.
The band practices in Lopez's bedroom, where Vans shoe boxes rest on the floor, clothes clump on the bed, and the walls are covered in a collage of posters and ripped-out magazine pages depicting faces such as Thom Yorke, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe.
Forming a triangle and facing each other, Mostly Bears vibrates the walls of the Northwest Side house with Hidalgo's bass, Nick Wantland's drums and Lopez's guitar. The police were called on them a few times when they tried playing in the garage, so they switched to the room of Lopez, a classically trained guitarist, and now finish evening jam sessions around 9 p.m.
Mostly Bears said it considered relocating to somewhere like Los Angeles or Seattle initially, but figured the cost of living in Tucson coupled with its bustling music scene would suffice.
Seattle's Jesse Sykes, who has become a successful musician with her band Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, said even though her city received worldwide attention in the early '90s with the grunge movement, Seattle bands these days still need to tour to attract attention.
That is tough, she said, as Seattle, like Tucson, is separated geographically from other cities. On the East Coast, a band can attempt to build a buzz by hitting, say, Philadelphia, New York and Boston in a weekend.
That reasoning was partially why Lagoon packed up and moved from Tucson to Providence, R.I.
"We discovered it was very difficult to tour the West as everything is spread out," Lagoon singer and guitarist David Ziegler-Voll wrote in a March e-mail to the Star. "To hit any outlet outside of Southern Arizona, a major road trip is required."
Another problem is, be it Seattle, Tucson, or Des Moines, Iowa, lots of talented bands just don't want to do the groundwork touring requires and instead become content playing local shows, Sykes said.
"Those kinds of bands, every city has," she said.
"I don't think it's about where you live," Golden Boots' Ryan Eggleston said. "It's about how hard you work."
When KXCI's Jennings first began following the local music scene, he said one of the acts he fell in love with was the bluesy, gritty Greyhound Soul. The band's mastermind, Joe Peña, and his group often stick to Arizona gigs.
"Joe Peña has more talent in his little finger than many of the other musicians in town," Jennings said. "That's the kind of band where, if they were able to motivate themselves to tour nationally or had the means to do that, I think they could be huge." Peña did not respond to an e-mail for comment.
Mostly Bears is aware of the trappings of playing locally.
"Eventually what happens is you play in Tucson for too long and people won't go to your shows as much because they've seen you so many times," Hildago said.
Depending on whom you talk to, if we're ever to become close to something like an Austin, it is still at least a few years — and bands — off.
"I don't think we are turning enough quality talent yet," Slutes said. "We're close, but we need more talent."
Jennings disagrees, believing Tucson is ready now, even if others might not love the idea.
"Obviously it's open to interpretation," he said. "Some people like the charming, unknown quality of the scene. But the more attention that we get from the outside, the more touring artists will look at Tucson as a place to come to, which — as a huge live music fan — is not a bad thing."
Even in this age of digital downloading, Grulke believes Tucson, an "idealistic oasis," has potential to establish itself as a music destination.
Just like anywhere else.
"It's the people that do it," he said. "Not the place."
Bergeron started the local label Mudhouse Records in 2006 as a way to help document some of the music being made here that otherwise wasn't.
"I can't put my finger on it as to why Tucson isn't more on the map," Bergeron said. "I guess I'm just more concerned with making sure it does happen."
Mudhouse Records joins other local labels, like Funzalo and Bloat Records, in showcasing the Tucson music scene, which many say is and always was more of a community than a competition.
"You could always call your friends and borrow equipment or play on each other's records," said Mike Semple, who is signed to In De Goot Recordings under the moniker Secretary Bird. Semple was in Dog and Pony Show in the '90s. He also toured Europe with Giant Sand, and recorded several albums with Friends Of Dean Martinez, a group that contributed original music to last year's Richard Linklater film "Fast Food Nation."
With a title of the Tucson Artists and Musicians Health Alliance, Slutes is trying to organize a local version of Sweet Relief, which provides financial assistance to musicians facing illness, disability or age-related problems. Austin already has something similar in place, he said.
Mostly Bears hopes its show Friday is a spectacle, something people won't be able to forget, much like the city they call home.
"There's no doubt it'll break soon," Bears' Lopez said. "Everyone who plays music here definitely feels that there is something here."
• What: Mostly Bears CD-release party.
• When: Friday, doors open at 8 p.m.
• Where: Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St.
• Cost: $5, all ages.
• Hear it at myspace.com/mostlybears.
This is the first in an occasional series examining the Tucson music scene and its potential to become a major music hub.