I got my start as a writer at my college newspaper doing local band spotlights on the burgeoning artists in the Baton Rouge music scene. I wrote about college bands, bands that had been big in the scene years before and groups that were just finding their feet.
I’ve lived in Baton Rouge for a number of years now, and throughout that time, the Baton Rouge music scene has always seemed small, which makes sense because, compared to neighboring music powerhouse New Orleans, it is small. Standing up to that is a big task, so Baton Rouge acts have to find creative ways to get their work to the public.
I reached out to a few bands in the area to hear their thoughts. Of course, it’s impossible to interview every band, so I chose three bands that belong to various rock subgenres.
First things first: Sometimes things have to get wacky.Local band Neon Mountain kicks it up a notch with its live shows. Back in January, the band played a show with Ambassador and Mayhaps complete with live physical artists and an extreme light show. For an upcoming performance, the band is planning on having an acrobat perform while they play. In addition, the group is full of multi-instrumentalists and even has two percussionists.
Neon Mountain draws inspiration for its live shows from Arcade Fire, showing this isn’t just a solution to a local issue. The Canadian band’s performances don’t just consist of a couple of musicians playing their instruments—it’s made up of confetti, unexpected instruments and sometimes even weird papier-mâché heads. It’s not just a concert at that point, but also a work of art.
The challenge comes in getting people out to shows because once people are introduced to music, there’s a chance they’ll keep listening. It’s the same idea as when you hear a new song on a radio and are then inspired to check out the whole album.
Ambassador promotes shows heavily on its social media channels, but sometimes that isn’t enough. The band goes to greater lengths, even sending personal invitations and the old-school method of posting printed fliers around campus.
Some bands, though, try a more new-school method to help get their music out there, putting songs on websites like SoundCloud as they’re finished so listeners have snippets of the music more often, rather than releasing songs in album format. Members of Mayhaps and Neon Mountain believe people respond to this better because we live in a digital age when everyone scrolls through feeds and bands only have a split second to get their attention.
“When we do a big full album, a lot of times, a lot of the songs get lost,” Neon Mountain member Lee White said.
Whatever it takes, just get people to the shows. Sometimes that means bands lend each other helping hands to fill seats.
“We stick together—we rely on each other to come to one another’s shows and help promote and support things like that,” said Ambassador vocalist Gabe Vicknair.
Community is an integral part of the Baton Rouge music scene, and it was a common denominator among all of the bands I talked to. Before I got started on this story, Neon Mountain member Cohen Hartman reached out to me about how many members of bands that exist here today were once part of other bands, and this reincarnation has kept the scene going. Members of Ambassador, for example, have played together on and off for about 10 years, creating a mini scene within the rock scene. The impression I got from the bands I met is that the scene goes through cycles, and while it may not seem exceptionally active right now, there’s more going on behind the scenes.
“The original music scene in this area with the [progressive rock] genre we play is always kind of a tight-knit community because there aren’t very many of us,” Vicknair said.
These bands are tied together by their commitment to playing original music in a city where cover bands are king.
Passion for creating the music they play is what drives Ambassador, and much of my conversation with Vicknair and guitarist Jason Ourso centered around that concept.
“It’s about creativity and our gift to be able to write music,” Vicknair said. “That’s the real focus.”
Even though cover bands book the most dates in the city, Vicknair wants people to know that there are original bands out there too, though the number is on the low side. He’d even go as far as to say many members of the community are anti-cover, meaning they want to support original music and have never been a part of cover bands. Even if it means smaller crowds, Ambassador will always play original music, he said.
But to be able to perform these shows, there has to be a place for bands to play. Members of Mayhaps, who came together in 2013 but floated between other bands before that, say there’s been a decline in house shows because everyone calls the cops, and bands are discouraged from playing loudly. That, coupled with smaller venues like Chelsea’s Café and the music space in Here Today Gone Tomorrow shutting their doors, means bands in the rock scene don’t have many options when it comes to stage time.
There are a lot of obstacles standing in the way of the bands that make up the Baton Rouge rock scene, but despite that, Ambassador remains optimistic.
“From, like, the ‘50s, every band that crossed the Mississippi River bridge would stop in Baton Rouge, in downtown. Baton Rouge was born through original art,” Vicknair said. “We lost it somehow over the years, [and] Lafayette [and] New Orleans have much stronger scenes because people get out and try new bands. People listen to…the bands they like to listen to. They forget that there are original artists, so when you see someone playing at a bar or somewhere in Baton Rouge that’s original music, give it a chance, go out and support: You may be pleasantly surprised with what you hear.”
Top photo: Neon Mountain by Sean Gasser.
Want to hear more from the bands featured in this story? Check out some some info below:
Ambassador is playing a show at Spanish Moon on April 15.