Anyone with an interest in rock music will have heard about how important San Francisco was in the late 1960s. Still, that doesn’t mean that its scene ended after the heyday of psychedelic music, and even a quick look at Mark Murrmann’s photos are enough to prove that. By day, Murrmann works as a photo editor at Mother Jones, but at night you’re likely to find him at a rock show (and taking pictures) somewhere around the Bay. He collected 15 years’ worth of concert photos and recently made a zine published by Hamburger Eyes, “Mess Me Up! Bay Area Bands: 1998-2012.” I talked with Murrmann about the music scene in the Bay Area, and he gave the back story of some of his photos.
So, how’d you get started with photography?
I’ve been shooting since around ’94, ’95. Punk bands played in my basement in Bloomington, Indiana. Since I had bands playing in my basement, I just figured I’d take pictures of them. I bought a camera, and I’d taken a class in high school, so I knew how to use it, but when I started taking pictures of bands it was really just guessing how to do it based on other people at shows taking pictures. I had a lot of really bad fuck-ups… I was in the darkroom at the Indiana school of journalism, like every day, and the guy who ran it gave me a job there. That’s really what got me into photography.
I was curious to ask about the dynamic between other rock photographers, and how that goes.
Well, for the shows I go to, I meant they’re all small punk shows—a big show for me is 500 people. I know the photographers so it’s pretty collegial. There are two other people who take pictures at a lot of the shows I go to, and we kinda coordinate, to make sure that we’re not in each other’s way. Still, I don’t consider myself a rock photographer so much. I wanted to be a rock photographer, and I wanted to shoot for music magazines, then I learned two things. First, music magazines don’t run live photos very much. Along with that, when you think of rock photography, it’s portraiture, which I haven’t done enough of. So that was a rude awakening for me—I wanted to shoot for record labels and Rolling Stone, but I didn’t have a portrait portfolio, so they weren’t interested.
Have you ever had your camera broken, or anything like that?
There was a Zero Boys show where Paul Mahern the singer was stage diving, and he landed on me, and the same time somebody was trying to catch him… my head’s smashed. I had my Leica with me, and it shattered the lens hood. I would have been devastated if the lens broke. There’s a picture of myself which I stole off the internet, because I found it and it was kind of funny.
How would you describe the Bay Area style, musically?
Very fragmented. There are a lot of micro scenes in the Bay Area that don’t overlap at all. This was one thing that was really hard for me to deal with when I first got here. You have the garage rock scene, the hardcore scene, and the more traditional punk scene, and it just didn’t overlap at all. One thing I found is, going to hardcore punk shows is a lot more fun visually and a lot more interesting to shoot, but the music I shoot is garage rock stuff, which is generally not as intereting to shoot, for me anyway. It all kinda looks the same, but the hardcore stuff is more about reacting to the music. Especially since I’ve gotten older, the bands are a little more mellow, that I like listening to, I mean I still like hardcore, but I’m more into older music.
What kind of scene would you say that you’re paying attention to these days? Bands like Eddy Current Suppression Ring, or Apache Dropout, how would you describe these bands?
Apache are kinda easy, they’re a neo-60s kind of band. Eddy Current… I wouldn’t say they’re entirely doing something new, but they’re a stripped-down garage rock. It’s hard to consider them punk even though I do—if you told someone that they’d think you’re crazy. A lot of what I listen to is 60s and 70s rock and roll, so a lot of the bands I like now have elements of that. if somebody asks me now I just say guitar based rock music, or guitar based music. In general, The Flamin’ Groovies is pretty much my favorite band, and I’m lucky because those guys are from the Bay Area and they still play. Getting to see them is always great, it’s mind-blowing. Eighty percent of what I listen to is Thin Lizzy or The Flamin’ Groovies, stuff like that. They haven’t put a record out for a while, but The Ooga Boogas, that record was really great. Apache Droupout, they were here and played a show and it was just so good. The Pretty Things from the UK, they’re a 60s band, I like them a lot. There’s this band from Finland called The Hurriganes, they’re just like, rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry rock and roll. Dr. Feelgood from the UK. I don’t need anything fancy, just something to get your blood boiling with a couple of chooga-chooga riffs.
“This was shot at a Kinko’s at three in the morning. It was the last day of a girl who was working there, and she had a bunch of bands come when she started her shift. That doesn’t happen as much anymore, or I don’t know about it. Punks took over the entire Kinko’s and were making zines, four or five bands played, that was pretty fun.”
No Kill I
“This was in Sacramento, they were a Star Trek-_themed band. Kinda goofy, really sloppy horrible punk, but really fun. They all dress as different characters from _Star Trek, all their songs were about Star Trek. They made it into the movie Trekkies 2. There’s another Star Trek-themed band from Sacramento who were very serious about it—they dress in Klingon garb and sing in Klingon, that band hates No Kill I – ‘they’re just fuckin around, they aren’t serious about it!'”
“There used to be generator shows, where these people would get a generator, plug in in front of the 16th and Mission BART station, and just play until the cops came and told them to shut it off.”
Total BS is one of my favorite Bay Area bands right now, which is sort of funny because they’re just a Bob Seger cover band. They’re really fucking good.