If you were a young punk living in the Bay Area in the early ’90s, broke to the point of destitution, and still eager to use what few dollars you had to your name on a new slab of wax, the Epicenter had you covered. The volunteer-run record shop grew out an idea from Maximumrocknroll honcho Tim Yohannan and bloomed in a huge second-floor walk-up at 574 Valencia St. in San Francisco's Mission District. To suggest the Epicenter just sold records is like saying a Swiss Army Knife is only good for whittling; the store also functioned as a de facto community center filled out with couches, a pool table, a zine library, and space for bands to perform. The Epicenter even hosted film nights and had a dedicated "switchboard" to refer transient punks to crucial community services, like where to get free food or a place to crash. The records were cordoned off so punks couldn't make off with any music, though the Epicenter didn't charge much anyway—some Epicenter volunteers wanted to charge as little as $1 for rarities rather than price gouge.
The Epicenter is where Seth Nanaa is pretty sure he found a 1992 7” from an unfamiliar band that originated more than 2,300 miles eastward. They came from a Michigan city located in a ring around Detroit called Dearborn. The band's name, Current, was emblazoned on the cover of the record's manila envelope. The bold capital letters hovered over a photocopy of an Ansel Adams portrait of a Native American crouched amid towering trees and some thick underbrush.
Nanaa took the record to his Oakland home, and played it so frequently his turntable's needle gave out. He drank in the tidal-wave guitars powerful enough to make the band's workmanlike rhythm section sound like a schooner weathering a typhoon, and a voice whose soul-bearing bellows sliced through the controlled chaos like a machete. He loved Current's debut so much he got its artwork tattooed on his left shoulder. "That 7”, it's just fucking great," Nanaa reminisced. "Back then, what sounded like that? Not much. That was right up our alley."
"Our" refers to Sinker, a band Nanaa and his twin brother, Adam, formed after putting their pop-punk group Jabberjaw to bed in August 1992. In Current, Seth Nanaa heard a group that spoke in a similar language, a molten lingo that emerged from D.C.'s reactionary mid-80s post-hardcore scene. The nation's capital produced a cache of outfits who balanced hardcore's blunt attack with sophisticated melody; they'd play the region for a year or two before sputtering out. Discord issued a smattering of these records, which spread around the country along with a pejorative nickname for the sound these groups practiced: emocore.
Handfuls of punks scattered around the U.S. heard this style as a call to arms. They came from Annapolis, Maryland; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Little Rock, Arkansas; and the Gateway Region of New Jersey. Current, whose existence preceded that of Sinker by a matter of months, tapped the sound's mystical root. "There was only, at that time, 20 bands, maybe less, that even would play music like that," Nanaa recalled. "So they were instantly brothers of ours."
Nanaa wrote an effusive letter to the address on the back of his beloved 7”, and struck up a friendship with Current vocalist Matthias Weeks and guitarist Justin LaBo. Their letters and late-night phone calls snowballed into a tour proposal. The bands met in June 1993 at 404 Willis, a Detroit all-ages events space and anarchist infoshop run by an anti-racist collective. The two outfits sojourned west for a spell, parted ways, and met again on Sinker's California turf. "I think it's a weird stroke of fate that Current and us got to be such good friends," Nanaa reflected.
To commemorate their friendship, Current and Sinker concocted a plan to release a joint 7”, with each group taking up a single side with just one song. "It was obvious that because we played a bunch of shows with them, and we'd known them for a long time, it just made sense that we would do a split 7" with them," LaBo remarked. "That was kind of the thing, right? You did split records with people who you were friends with."
A split 7” also afforded cash-strapped punk bands to pool what little resources they had for a common goal. Sinker and Current had both released music through their own labels—Repercussion Records and Council Records, respectively. Doing it together made DIY a bit easier, though this split would be credited to two labels helmed by Adam Nanaa: Repercussion and Homemade Records. "I probably influenced my brother to put that out," Seth Nanaa recalled. "I think I actually put some money into it because I wanted it to happen so badly."
Only one problem: Sinker called it quits at the end of their summer tour. The Nanaa brothers quickly moved on to another project with Sinker drummer Dan Bradley in tow. They recruited Marc Bianchi to help stir up some noise that would take their post-hardcore dreams to tortuous new heights: Indian Summer. In their rehearsal space they self-recorded the tense, careening "Orchard," whose razorblade riffs make a trail through hushed passages, burnt-out breakdowns, and explosive climaxes; screams crack through the din as if emitted by a Lovecraftian creature trying to claw out from a mausoleum.
The Nanaa brothers contributed "Orchard" for Indian Summer’s half of the split. Current recorded the crisp, wind-em-up A-side, "Key," back in March 1993 as part of a long session for their debut album, Coliseum. Both sides showcased newfound feral (Indian Summer) and anthemic (Current) directions that upstarts had carved out of the old D.C. sound. Together, they stood a better chance of making an impression on enthusiastic young punks starving for this style.
Too bad the old punks couldn't hang.
A few months after Current and Indian Summer dropped their split record, the January 1994 issue of Maximumrocknroll made its way to punk houses and P.O. Boxes around the world. Its 17-page record reviews section began with a new note from founder and figurehead Tim Yohannan: "As a rule, you'll find less and less emo, metal, post-hardcore and pop being reviewed, as those genres seem to be veering further and further from their rock & roll roots and towards all the egotistical self-indulgences of early 70s hard rock. Generally speaking, if it ain't reviewed here, it's not because we never got the record... and more than likely, it's not being reviewed because it has absolutely nothing to do with punk or hardcore and sucks big time."
A review of the Current/Indian Summer 7” appeared three pages later. As if to make a point, Yohannan wrote it. The record exemplified what he wanted excised from the zine: "In a nutshell, this is today's post-hardcore answer to early ’70s progressive rock ('alternative rock?'), which is one reason why MRR will be reviewing less and less of this type of sound. Your parents would like records like this."
MRR set the tone for the underground internationally. Its April 1996 issue cheekily played off its reputation as the "punk bible" with its black cover spare but for the words "Holy Bible" in big capital letters ("Of Punk Rock" followed in a much smaller font). Whether or not Yohannan would admit it, he'd established an underground empire—though one geared towards a collectivist spirit. He'd helped found Berkeley’s storied all-ages venue, 924 Gilman Street, a punk mailorder cooperative called Blacklist, and Epicenter. And in 1992, MRR launched Book Your Own Fuckin' Life, an annual resource guide aimed at helping punks chart their own tours.
Tim Yohannan gave punks in the Bay Area an entire ecosystem. His word could be a life-force or a death-blow to a new band. Unless that band was Indian Summer. "We wouldn't give a shit man, we didn't care about that stuff," Nanaa considered. "We were alone, and we knew it. Everything we put out, I'm sure we just expected it to get a review like that."
Current's members were less nonchalant about the review. "It was unfortunate," LaBo said. "It really bothered me for sure." Partially as a retort to MRR, Current quickly formed a thrash-and-burn hardcore unit called Ottawa with their pal Jeff Rice. They issued one recording—a split, of all things, with a band out of Kalamazoo called Jihad. (Five MRR writers would list the Ottawa/Jihad split in their "Top 10" for the zine's December 1994 issue.)
More went into MRR's editorial decision than Yohannan let on. The letters section in MRR's February 1994 issue led with a brief missive accusing the zine's staff of elitism. Yohannan laid out a response that took up nearly two pages. The underground had grown exponentially the previous two years, and MRR's volunteer staff could not keep up, nor could the zine's blotchy newsprint fit everything—the zine had already hit the maximum thickness its printer allotted for a single issue. "As this scene has gotten bigger, the pressure has increased on MRR to meet everyone's needs," Yohannan wrote. "We can't."
In the wake of MRR's newly ascribed rules, a clutch of zines emerged to fill in the gaps left by MRR. Punk Planet took root in Chicago, and drifted towards covering indie rock, pop-punk, and emo. Down in Goleta, California, Ebullition Records founder Kent McClard launched HeartattaCk, whose vision of hardcore extended into screamo, powerviolence, and the poppy side of emocore. "It was kind of like, 'OK, cool, Kent is going to do a thing that is more geared toward this kind of a scene,'" LaBo said. "I think we said, 'Fuck Maximumrocknroll, HeartattaCk's our new source of information.'"
HeartattaCk published its first issue in March 1994. McClard's review of the Current/Indian Summer 7” struck a different note than MRR. "Current is sensational, at times comparable to Moss Icon and yet somehow managing to retain their own identity," he wrote. "Indian Summer do a very post-Sinker type of a song, which makes sense considering they are the aftermath of Sinker. Simple and enjoyable."
Current and Indian Summer would both break up before the fall of 1994, though their scene flourished in their wake. The broader underground continued to contort in new directions the rest of the decade. In early 1995, MRR and Punk Planet ran middlingly positive reviews of Punk-O-Rama, a compilation CD of bands on blockbuster indie label Epitaph. The pop-punk world adapted the CD compilation quicker than the rest of the punk world, but more unknown bands and micro-labels with zero budgets began to pay the compilation CD more mind than the split 7”. Bands that pushed emocore in a newfound pop direction such as The Promise Ring and Braid did continue to issue split 7” records, but they also showed their scene had strength in numbers with mid-’90s CD compilations such as Ooh Do I Love You and Ground Rule Double. Split 7” records completely ceded ground to the CD by the end of the ’90s—then again, so had everything else.
The split 7” faded from relevance, but it didn't entirely disappear. At least, not in emo. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, a clutch of new acts began taking notes from the bygone days of Current and Indian Summer, and they revisited the mediums of yore too. Starting in 2009, Michigan's Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate) issued nearly a dozen split 7” records with far-flung emo bands over a five-year period. It helped establish connections that would make emo's fourth wave an indie-rock phenomenon and forge cross-country friendships. Even now, a split 7” can still be a lifeline.
—Leor Galil, 2021