Joshua Stirm: Small Scenes and Indie Dreams
Joshua Stirm is a 20 year old musician based in Ashland, OR. He is the frontman of the Juniper Berries, and plays with several other local groups on the side such as the Pretty Pennies. He is currently studying Emerging Media & Digital Arts at Southern Oregon University.
Josh has been a central member of Ashland’s young music scene, having fronted multiple bands as well as performed and recorded with a number of other acts. Last year, Josh helped establish one of Ashland’s major music houses, Rehab, and he began 2017 with the release of of the Juniper Berries’ debut album, Don’t Breathe In Through Your Mouth. Growing up in Rogue River, OR, Josh has pursued his musical interests in an area not generally supportive of its younger musicians. I got to talk with him about the strengths and struggles of Ashland's music scene, and he provided insight into the making of his new album.
Photo from @thejuniperberries
How did you expect the shows in Ashland to be when you first moved here?
My sister lived here in Ashland for a couple years when I was in middle school and high school, and she had told about all these rad bands––100 Watt Mind, Boots & The Cobblers, Father Doug… I was like, “Damn, Ashland sounds way cooler than I thought it would be.” So I kind of expected [the scene that’s] going on now when I came to Ashland, then the first year I was disappointed as hell. I had expectations, and they were not met, and a year later they kinda were met beyond what I had initially expected. I thought everything had died out, honestly––I was in a band at the time, and we were just playing at Club 66 once a month, and that was all we could do.
Tell me about Club 66.
It was just a shitty, dive-y, not very nice place. They let anyone play there, which was cool, and you could do a free show there if you wanted, but it sounded terrible. It was really the last resort of last resorts. It didn’t sound good, they didn’t have a sound person, they wouldn’t pay you––if you decided to charge a cover, that’s how much you made. It was in a weird part of town, down by the [I-5] overpass, [and] by the graveyard (which was kinda cool). I mean, it was fun, because you could just go insane and no one cared, because there was no standard. There would be a pop punk band one night, the next night there’d be a doom metal band, and the next night there’d be some nice little indie-twangy-pop band from Texas or something. There was no quality control at all, so you could do whatever the hell you wanted there.
To my knowledge, that was the only all-ages venue around here.
Oberon’s does all-ages shows early in the day, as long as it’s over by like 7 or 8 [PM]. They’re sort of an all-ages venue, but 66 was the main one.
When I found out Club 66 was shutting down, it felt to me like we went from nothing to even less… That seems to be what sparked more house shows.
I think it was a blessing in disguise almost. In the back of everyone’s minds, they were like, “Damn, we don’t have any venues to play… but there’s 66; we have something. It’s not great, but we can play there.” That closing has created a sense of urgency. People are now saying, “Shit, if we don’t do something about this, we’re gonna have nothing,” and some people [said], “Well, I’ll just do one at my house.” The scene is way better now than it was before 66 closed.
From what I know about Portland’s younger scene, they’ve been having similar struggles with venues closing or changing from all-ages to 21+. Did you hear about what was happening up north at all?
My cultural experience was really weird, so I sorta knew that Portland was [where] things were going on––I didn’t really know what. When I started playing music, I was like, “Ah Portland––something is going on there. Like, that place is really cool.” I started following the music scene in this little town in Kentucky called Bowling Green for some reason––there’s this band called Morning Teleportation from there that I found on the internet and got really obsessed with for like a year when I was in high school––that town is really small, but they have a really cool music scene. Oddly, that’s how I found out about the whole house show idea. Supposedly back in the day, like five years ago, there was a big house show scene [in Ashland], but then a lot of those kids graduated and moved away. Supposedly back then it was really gross and messy, and people got the cops called all the time. There was a story of a house called the Mulling Manor up above [the SOU] campus where they had prayer flags [made of] noise tickets––they strung all of the tickets from APD [Ashland Police Dept.] up on the wall into this collage. [The house show scene] has gotten much more sustainable and more––I don’t wanna say low-key… A bit chiller.
Do you know of anything happening in Medford?
I know of one cool house in Medford called the Pirate Punks House. I played there [with] my old band once. I’ve been there like two or three times, but they do shows there in south Medford. It’s this cool punk house, but it’s all older punks, so it’s nice––they have this big basement, and they throw shows there probably once every two or three months now, not regularly at all, but they have a PA and stuff. The problem is it’s really secretive, and they only have like hardcore or thrash bands. Very niche. They could pack that place––they can pack that place easily on their reputation alone, but I don’t think the bands that play there would play nice with the bands that play in Ashland.
We’ve been getting a number of bands from the Portland area coming down here to Ashland; do you think there are a lack of groups or musicians to hold these kinds of shows on our own?
Yeah, I definitely think we need people from other scenes. There’s not that many bands here, unfortunately… I haven’t heard about a new band starting in like a year. I worry about that sometimes. There’s several bands doing things right now; a year ago a ton of bands all started right at once, (maybe like a year, year-and-a-half ago,) but since then there haven’t been a lot. In order to keep blood circulating, so to speak, we need to have bands coming from out of town. It kind of allows us to feel prideful; people come from Portland, and they’re like, “These shows are really cool! This is rad!” If we didn’t have that, then we would feel insular, maybe more boring.
Photo from Joshua Stirm on Facebook
What sets the scene here apart from other places? What makes it uniquely the “Ashland scene”?
Pure desperation. People need this to be going on, otherwise they’re not going to be able to do what they want to do at all. All [our] shows are nice, people will be vacuuming [their spaces] and stuff––I think it makes things nicer. It’s pretty eclectic. I’m trying hard not to talk about my own band! You have bands like the Pretty Pennies––a country-rock band––playing with Slow Corpse, who are the indie-rock dudes. It’s more tight-knit also; everyone hangs out. In Portland, I think a lot of people don’t see each other except at shows, whereas a lot of the people here––because it’s a smaller community––you make a connection at a show, and then you guys hang out.
More of a social experience than just a show?
In a bigger city, I feel like bands there––you get up to play in front of people, [and] if your band sucks, then everyone’s like, “Oh, they suck.” Later, they’re not going to put up with it. Here, if you get up and you suck, people are still gonna be like, “That band wasn’t very good,” but everyone’s committed to helping each other get better. There’s definitely an embracing of the suck, which part of me thinks is cool, [and] part of me thinks is detrimental… But everyone is committed to not only helping each other do things, but helping each other do things better. I was just talking to someone the other day, and they were like, “You guys should try writing a song like this,” and giving critiques that are actually helpful, rather than like, “Yeah, that was good.”
Do you feel that you have access to the same kinds of resources that are available up north?
No, not at all. This is a whole thing; here, people are concerned about sounding good live, being a tight band, and being fun for the audience to listen to, but people are less concerned about recording. Way more [focus on performing] live than recording, whereas in Portland it’s almost a more even balance. I think it’s cool for live bands here, because you can get a lot of experience doing that, but we don’t have any studios––well, I guess we have a couple studios, but they probably suck. I would assume that, but I’ve also heard that they’re not great. I’d rather record in a bedroom and do it my way than record in a shitty studio and have to do it a bad producer’s way.
Has having to record in a bedroom been limiting, or do you think it has some freedom to it?
I’ve never done it a different way, but I think it’s the most freeing thing ever. You’re able to maximize your resources that way. If you’re recording in a studio, you have a little bit of what you brought with you, or whatever you brought with you equipment-wise, and you have whatever the studio has. If you’re at home, it’s more of a headspace. I was calling friends in to help me record stuff; I would call Cole in [for] like a fifth harmony part. It’s limiting, because you probably don’t have as much equipment in your house, but the comfort level is so high… I think that makes up for it almost. Nothing can be as intimate in a studio as it is in your house. The most important thing to me is the intimate atmosphere of the bedroom.
Your new album has that “real” feel to it, like the listener is existing with you in that space as you’re recording it.
I think there’s one part where you can hear someone eating actually, which is hilarious! I think it’s in “Blacktop Asphalt”; I was recording an acoustic guitar, and Keaton was eating dinner in the other room. At one point the whole thing stops, and you can kinda hear the clinking of cutlery on a plate.
Given the opportunity to record in a more professional studio, would you just go for it?
As much as I like to be the guy that [says] home recording is the best, I also think adamantly deciding on the DIY aesthetic sometimes leads to you not doing everything that you could do.
The “indie” aesthetic, right? I know a lot of folks here who are really into those types of acts. Where do you think that comes from?
I was just talking to someone about this. You have grunge music; that’s the origination of this cigarette-smoking, “dirty” culture… That’s like the Mac DeMarco thing. Grunge and all that music turns into 2000s–2010s indie-rock; people got really clean-cut all of a sudden, and music started getting… I mean, i–it’s fine… It got so clean-cut, and then people who are still into independent music were like, “Oh, what? This is called indie-rock? What the hell?” They peeked back a little bit and found like Neutral Milk Hotel and The Pixies and Pavement––working backwards, back through “indie-rock” history. They’re like, “It used to be dirty, and the music was better; Let’s do that again.”
So it was an intentional return to old ideas?
I don’t think someone sat down and made a flow chart and [decided] this is what we’re gonna do, but a lot of people now have gone back and listened to music from like the ‘90s and the early 2000s, and we’re buying vinyl again.
It seems to me that in independent music, or the kind of music around here, there’s a lot of expressional freedom.
Some people don’t get this around here, and I think we’ve talked about this in the Berries… If we wanted to make chart-topping music or something, we wouldn’t know where to start, and whatever music is made here––no one is going to hear anyways. So why not just do exactly what you wanna do? It doesn’t matter either way; no one’s going to hear it except for your friends.
Do you think there’s more caring down here about what’s going on––about the music that’s being made?
Versus Portland? I don’t know; it’s hard to say. I think there’s more caring about the people that are making the music. I don’t know if people care more about the music here or not. I can’t say this definitely, but my perception is there’s a much bigger concern about like “cool” factor in Portland. I sound lame saying that, because I like cool music too, but in Portland… I don’t know, I feel like everyone’s just trying to be as “weird” as possible and whatever’s vogue.
From what I know, pop punk tends to be a fairly dominant genre in those small scenes. Do you think it’s a hindrance that we don’t have acts like that here––not doing what other cities are doing?
I wouldn’t say so. Our scene, although it’s really small––there’s more and more people coming to shows––it has the potential to be really really really cool. Maybe it’s not how it works in other cities, but I feel like we have all the bases covered; there’s good bands, there’s fans that care about the music, and there’s several different cool open environments for people to play that music in. I think it doesn’t really matter what type of music it is, as long as people like it and will come and see it, and we have that.
Photo from @strimling
One aspect of the Ashland scene that’s different is that making and posting public flyers for shows is not really a thing here. Why no flyers? Why not make it more public?
I don’t know! Those shows get really rowdy already. When I was doing the shows at Rehab, I would make the Facebook event sometimes three days in advance of a show, and the day of the show I’d check and there’s like seventy people coming on Facebook. I think if we made it public, it would just be unmanageable…
Do you think there’s an exclusiveness problem with that?
I will definitely agree; I think it is a little maybe elitist or exclusive, which kinda sucks. I wish that there was a good way to go to the [SOU] dorms and [tell] everyone there’s cool music going on. I think it is a little too exclusive, but I don’t really know a better way to handle the capacity problem. Things already get so out-of-hand sometimes; I mean, it’s controlled chaos for the most part, but it’s on the brink of being uncontrolled chaos. Making it free to everyone and well-known would possibly make that harder to manage. Plus, a lot of the people are selling beer and stuff, and if it’s public knowledge… The cops could show up, and we’re in trouble.
To support that, I’d say how it’s set up is not that bad a way of doing it, because even though it’s not public there are different people every time. There’s the “plus one” piece that helps the shows reach new people through word of mouth, and there are many different faces at every show.
I don’t think it’s hard. Say I’ve never been to a house show, and I know that you go to house shows, and I know that they’re going on but don’t know when they are [or] how to get to one; pretty much anyone that I would ask that’s going to these house shows would let you know. People aren’t trying to keep [others] out of it, but it’s vaguely kept under wraps. I’ve witnessed [a few] people kinda being a snotty about [attending shows]. I guess if you need something to feel good about, then that’s a good thing, but there’s definitely a group of people that are being a little elitist about it, which kinda sucks.
It’s primarily college students who are going to these, but what about high schoolers? I’ve seen whole groups of high schoolers at a number of shows, sometimes even being more rowdy than the college students. What do you think about that inclusion?
I think it’s fine, because no one’s deciding who gets to and who doesn’t get to come; people just show up. The only thing I worry about is… Sometimes there’s shows where there’s a lot of drugs. Luckily, that hasn’t ever been too much of a problem, but more what I worry about is just making it a safe environment for everyone, not that it would be more or less safe with high schoolers there. I would say anyone that wants to come totally can come, it’s fine. The only thing I worry about overall on the whole idea of house shows is that everything’s safe.
Do you think the shows here are pretty safe?
I think so. There’s always a couple people who are keeping an eye out. If anyone’s being a jerk, they usually get kicked out or people won’t sell them beer anymore. I think they’re pretty safe for the most part.
Typically they’re not bring-your-own-beer events either. I don’t see many other places selling beer at shows.
I think it’s really a great thing. It sucks that it’s illegal, which is the one bummer about the whole thing. There is kind of a “cool” factor; it’s a little dangerous, because it’s illegal… But the selling of beer is good, because it gives the bands money, and if it gets really wild, people can buy cleaning supplies after the show with the money they made from the people who trashed their house the night before!
Do you think it’s more effective than just having a $5 charge instead?
Yeah, I think it’s more effective than that, and it’s kind of helpful. I know, as an attendee, if I’m going to a house show with my friends, it’s nice to [know] we don’t have to get beer beforehand and walk all the way there with this big pack of beer or whatever. It’s cheap too; it’s like a dollar a beer usually. It makes it easier for everyone in attendance, because they don’t have to buy beer ahead of time, and they’re not getting gouged for it.
Does it help control things a bit more?
Yeah, because you can cut people off, which I’ve seen happen a few times. Someone’s in control, which––as long as they’re not a jerk––is probably a good thing. If it’s BYOB, then beer is just everywhere, and people’s drinks could get spiked. This is almost like a closed system. You go up to the bar––unless someone buys you a beer––you give them a dollar, [and] they give you an unopened can. I think that’s safer than maybe having your beer laying around all over the place with everyone else’s beer. Through the grapevine, I heard a story of one bad experience where someone’s drink might have been spiked with something, but they weren’t really sure, because they did drugs also. That person did not have a fun night, but that’s the only time I’ve ever heard of anything like that happening.
So very rare?
Yeah, I mean, I would say. This brings up something––do you know the band Local News? They’re mostly based in Medford. Their drummer wants to start this group on Facebook––there’s one in Portland that she’s part of––it’s a community page on Facebook for musicians to talk about shows and connect with each other, but it’s also a safe space to either call out people that have been harassers or share stories or [let other bands know if a venue didn’t pay]. We should have something like that to make sure things are safe.
Photo from Joshua Stirm on Facebook
Josh stops to take a restroom break. As he returns, he casually lights a cigarette.
Did you start smoking in college?
Yeah. I sorta smoked when I was younger. I was in like seventh grade. My friend and I stole cigarettes from his mom. I kinda smoked for a little bit, and then I did at the beginning of high school, then I quit… Then about a year ago I picked it back up. My smoking is still kind of a choice almost at this point; I hate to say that cliché, like, “I could quit if I wanted to”. I don’t know if I actually could, but I still do feel like smoking almost does more good for me than bad. There’s relaxing, and it keeps me from fidgeting, and it makes me less anxious a lot of the time. It’s also good social lubricant; I’ve met most of my friends at SOU through just hanging out smoking outside the [Stevenson Union]. One could argue that smoking is the reason that this whole music scene exists, because everyone smokes cigarettes. I was talking with Kyle Simpson about that a while ago; if it wasn’t for that little spot out in front of the [Stevenson Union]… Like, I’m pretty sure that’s how he met Brenton [of Slow Corpse], and Brenton and Mitchell met through him. That’s not how I met Kyle, but that’s how I became friends with him, that’s how I became friends with Alec… All the big connections were made over cigarettes.
I wonder what that says about the social activity of non-smokers!
In a bigger city, there’s lots of hubs where you can meet each other. Like, you meet at the record store––we have record stores, but I don’t think they’re as frequented––the cool hangout wherever places, whereas we don’t have as many of those here. [Smoking a cigarette] gives a centralized location for people to mingle. I don’t want to condone smoking at all though, but in this situation, it’s maybe helped in some way [even though] everyone has [physically] damaged themselves through it. As long as you’re doing good and bad at the same time, maybe it cancels out.
Let’s talk about your new album… Don’t Breathe In Through Your Mouth. Why is it titled that?
I can’t really say… Alec and I were spitballing ideas one day. We were going to call it Magnetic North, and then––there’s a line in [the song] “Magnetic North”… “Analog hearts and digital minds”––we were gonna call it that, and then we were gonna just call it "The Juniper Berries"… We had a bunch of ideas. [This title] just felt really right for some reason. It feels like a summation of the thing. It’s kinda weird [telling] someone, “Don’t breathe in through your mouth…” What does that mean exactly? I don’t really know what it means. The lyric in the song that it’s from is like from the perspective of a soldier who’s about to die, and they’re remembering their training, “I was told if I’m being followed, don’t breath in through my mouth; breathe in through my nose instead, because it’s louder when you breathe in through your mouth”. That sounds like a really dark thing to have the name of the album be.
Does the album have a dark feel to you?
When I listen to it, I think the summation of the thing is tentative hope. Overall, the impression I hope to leave is a slightly reserved hopefulness. There’s dark moments, for sure, but for every dark moment… Pretty soon afterwards, there’s a lift in some way. It’s bittersweet or something, which I think is more realistic. When people make just dark or just hopeful, that’s more black-and-white, or more simplistic than the world is. It’s always a mix of them.
The description for the album suggested you were having a tough time this last year. Is the album a direct response to that or more of a way to cope?
It’s kinda both. This confounds me; I don’t understand how all this made its way into the album. “Sweet Complicated Dreams” was written over this summer, and the album was pretty much done being recorded by [that] time, then Alec [suggested to] put that on [the album]. All the other songs were written over a year ago; they were all written in 2015, so they were dealing with some other things, like the falling apart of my old band, moving to college, and meeting all these interesting new people… But when you listen to the album, it sounds much more like the time it was recorded and performed in than the time it was written in.
Did the aesthetic change?
I think the sensibilities lined up. There were a bunch of songs too that I wrote around that time that didn’t [make it] to the album. I had this big collection of songs, and there wasn’t any common thread. Not to sound too sappy, but what happened in my life from when I wrote the songs to when the album came out gave me that common thread. Now all the songs seem totally connected. I laid the groundwork by writing the songs, but all the things that have happened since I wrote them fleshed them out, making them breathe and [being] more emotional.
Were the songs a prediction?
The song “Second Story Bedroom Window” I wrote about a couple breaking up, and that almost exact thing happened to me later. I wouldn’t say a prediction, but I wrote the songs when little emotions started arising, I articulated them, then they happened in full.
Everything fell into place?
Yeah, and I’m thankful for that. Last year was really hard; I broke up with my girlfriend of a long time, I moved a lot, and a bunch of crap happened… A lot of stress, stuff with school, work… I had a band I’d been in for over two years, I was dating this girl for over two years, I was going to college, I was studying music… I [had everything] figured out. Within six months to a year, I decided to change my major, my band broke up, I started writing in a totally different style, and my girlfriend and I broke up. Everything I thought for sure about my life was wiped away. All that happened [while we were recording the album].
How’s this year been so far?
2017 has been much better. The crappiness started to leave in November-December.
March 26 – Thunderdome House, Spokane, WA
March 27 – House show, Bellingham, WA
March 28 – The Fun House, Seattle, WA
March 29 – KAOS live radio performance, Olympia, WA
March 30 – **TBA**, Portland, OR
April 1 – The Boreal, Eugene, OR
The Juniper Berries
via Zach Whitworth (@zachwhitworth), a 20 year old artist based in Ashland, OR.