With an active all-ages scene driven by the nonprofit Ithaca Underground and cool labels like 73 Records and Don Giovanni calling it home, Ithaca's music is gorges.
Sammus / Photos by Benjamin Torrey
Ithaca, New York, conjures up a variety of images when people think of this secluded, 30,000-person town. For some, it’s strictly an academic hub, housing the many students who attend either Cornell University or Ithaca College. Others celebrate its natural beauty, with the gorges and waterfalls inspiring that infamous green T-shirt and unavoidable tourism marketing phrase. However, what often flies under the radar is the unique music scene that continues to shape the town’s cultural and artistic identity.
Ithaca’s rich musical history begins with an invention that would wind up influencing the field of sound and music in a monumental way. In 1965, Robert Moog graduated from Cornell University with a doctorate degree in Engineering Physics. The world of engineering never reaped the benefits of this man’s education, but musicians everywhere should be very thankful to him for abandoning the hard sciences. Moog produced his first analog synthesizers at his company's factory in Trumansburg, just on the outskirts of Ithaca. Although the R. A. Moog Company eventually relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, its imprint on music continues to be felt.
A few decades later, though, in 2007, Ithaca's music scene was languishing. Local music options consisted mostly of jam band festivals and huge college shows. Fed up with the situation, a ragtag group of like-minded individuals made it their mission to revive the area's once-flourishing DIY punk community. Calling themselves Ithaca Underground, an organization, spearheaded by local musician Jayme Peck, formed and began booking punk shows that were both DIY and, most importantly, all-ages.
Since its inception, Ithaca Underground (IU) has grown exponentially and in ways even its early participants didn't expect. Currently led by local celebrity Bubba Crumrine, what was once a loose organization of volunteers and disparate venues has turned into a legitimate arts-focused nonprofit that produces over 60 shows a year. While the DIY punk aesthetic permeates IU’s ethics and practices, the diversity of performances extends well beyond punk rock. It’s not uncommon to attend a show where the bill consists of a rapper, a math rock group, and a solo acoustic act all under the same roof of an intimate venue.
IU's accessible, steadfastly all-ages approach is mirrored in a number of forward-thinking record labels, such as 73 Records. Founded by Etienne Grenier, 73 Records is a youth-run label that releases music strictly made by youths. Consisting mainly of artists who are still in high school, the label is able to capture the young, creative energy abundant in the Ithaca area and press that onto cassette tapes. The artists on 73 Records are the kind of kids that make you look back on your own teenage years and realize you really weren't cool at all.
The town is also the temporary home of acclaimed punk label Don Giovanni Records while founder Joe Steinhardt completes his Ph.D. in Cornell’s Communication Department. With Don Giovanni operations situated in Ithaca, it’s become standard for acts on the label to come through town. Screaming Females, Tenement, Aye Nako, and Priests are just a few of the Don Giovanni bands that have played intimate—and, of course, all ages—shows in Ithaca within the past calendar year. Yet even as Ithaca becomes a more frequent tour stop for out of towners, it’s still the local acts that shape the live music scene. Here are some of the standouts:
Outside of bringing in touring acts, Don Giovanni has also done its fair share as far as signing area talent, such as the formidable local act Izzy True. Isabel Lou Reidy, who fronts the band, is an Ithaca music scene OG. They’ve been involved in this scene for years, leading a variety of bands since high school. Now with the Izzy True project as their main focus, their work has been developed into a shining example of self-deprecating yet whip-smart songwriting. Twee but with substance and backbone, Izzy True’s sound layers comforting melodic structures with jangly guitar that is just as at home on the present day indie rock spectrum as it would have been in the 90s on Merge Records.
Joe Steinhardt not only manages the business end of all things Don Giovanni but also performs as the solo act Modern Hut. In this artistic endeavor, Joe makes downer acoustic stylings that showcase his witty, dark humor. As he muses on subjects such as growing old, getting stuck in the mundane nature of adulthood, and being broke, Modern Hut acts as a testament to the enduring appeal of a man, his thoughts and his guitar.
King Sized Pegasus
One of the quintessential 73 Records bands is the wonderfully named King Sized Pegasus. Bratty, boisterous, and full of teenage angst, these kids are a living and breathing monument to the classic hardcore of yesteryear. In a live setting, King Sized Pegasus exude a level of adrenaline that only kids who still can’t legally drink alcohol can sustain. Frontman Lachlan Berger stumbles around the audience screaming the lyrics, all the while attempting to physically keep up with the frantic pace of their songs. Ian MacKaye would be proud of what these kids are doing.
Saxophone and punk go together like kale and quinoa or weed and brownies. why+the+wires understands this foolproof music formula and chase it with little inhibition. Think X-Ray Spex with a more hardcore bent, and you get the idea of what why+the+wires stands for.
Ithaca winters are bleak and brutal, so it’s no surprise that the town harbors a burgeoning metal community. Consisting of former TOMBS drummer Andrew Hernandez and bassist Dan Alex Rivera, Twin Lords bring the urgent furious noise with reckless abandon. With a sound that resembles Lightning Bolt if Brian Chippendale was in need of anger management, it’s the perfect sonic accompaniment for the chilly days where an overcast sky keeps the sun from shining on Ithaca.
Alongside metal, another dark musical sub-scene that exists within Ithaca is a growing collection of extremely talented and mercilessly loud noise artists. Weston Czerkies, the man behind the Sunken Cheek project, is one of the best. He works to effortlessly combine drone, no-input mixing, and dance influences to create haunting, soul-consuming compositions. When Weston isn’t performing, he runs Prime Ruin, a label that manufactures and distributes a deluge of noise collaborations featuring both local and national artists.
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, who raps under the moniker of Sammus as an ode to the classic Nintendo video game character, is Ithaca’s undisputed rap queen. Currently a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell (catching a theme?), she’s been releasing banger after banger for the past few years, all with an academic, “nerdcore” twist. Her most recent single “1080P” is an inspiring account unpacking how we address mental health issues in society. It’s a subject that is rarely, if ever, mentioned in rap, yet Sammus is able to use the power of her flow as a platform to begin an important conversation between herself and her listeners.
Ithaca is a college town, so some of the most talented groups of the moment were formed during tenures on campus. Lust is a collaboration between current and former Ithaca College and Cornell students that makes punk in the vein of Wire and Parquet Courts. Aaron Goldstein’s shouty lyrics, which cover topics ranging from consumerism to discontent with traditional post-graduation career paths, coalesce in a listening experience that is intellectually invigorating and contemplative.
Shore Acres Drive
Another Ithaca College / Cornell band is Shore Acres Drive. Over the course of his undergraduate years, guitarist Charlie Fraioli’s solo folk punk project evolved into something much bigger when Jake Burchard and James Manton got involved on drums and bass, respectively. The folk punk days are far beyond the boys now, with the band describing their new artistic direction as “post-rock played by emo kids who occasionally listen to black metal.”
Led by Ithaca Underground president Bubba Crumrine with percussionist and composer Sarah Hennies acting as a collaborator, BRIAN! channels a unique, avant-garde essence. This project combines math rock, spoken word, jazz, noise, and a bassoon played by David Resig. The strange mix results in a cacophony of sound that is unnervingly challenging yet completely engaging. I’m pretty confident to say that Ithaca is the only town in the world where a band with a bassoon can be caught playing a basement gig.
Dylan Farrell is a senior at Cornell University who enjoys booking basement shows and eating Grand Slams at the local Denny’s. Follow him on Twitter.