Interview: Willis Stork
Willis Stork wants to know if it’s good for Oakland. What “it” is specifically doesn’t matter. What does matter is whatever people are doing. And if the answer to the question “Is it good for Oakland?” is a no in regards to what people are doing, then it shouldn’t be happening.
Stork, a native of Pasadena, Calif., first arrived on scene in 1990, when he moved to Oakland for the purpose of attending California College of the Arts. Before long, he had immersed himself in the D.I.Y. community, putting out seven-inch records and creating a fanzine, “Get Off My Wagon.”
Post-graduation, he stuck around town, and toward the end of 1996, began booking at the Stork Club, which was then located at 12th and Webster streets. The job itself sort of happened upon him; knowing Stork was involved in the music and art culture, the booker at the time was on her way out and passed the torch on to him.
After more than a year had passed, Stork moved to Kansas City, Mo. But his exodus was short-lived, and by 1998 he was back in Oakland. Then in 2003, he lived at the 40th Street Warehouse, booking and promoting a handful of shows, which is when he noticed a shift in the atmosphere.
“I started to realize that the Oakland scene had changed,” he said. “There were more people that you could access and more people that were ready and willing to go to shows…it was really inspiring.”
A year later he moved to the French Fry Factory, which was in its heyday of having what Stork described as “killer” shows, and while he didn’t necessarily book them, he assisted in promoting events at the venue until it was shut down by authorities.
Still, Stork didn’t let that stop him, and he began doing acoustic booking at the Stork Club and the now-defunct Ivy Room. Come 2005, he and members of the band Young ‘N’ Natural put on shows at the Tempest and the Li Po Lounge under the name Seeya Later Oscar Vardy, and when the band moved to Los Angeles, Stork continued his work in Oakland under a shortened version of the name, Seeya Later. In 2006, Stork started putting on shows at the Ghost Town Gallery every First Friday, in order “to give the Art Murmur people a great excuse to get off Telegraph [Ave.]” after the galleries closed for the evening.
About six months after that launch off, Stork moved to San Francisco for a year. In addition to promoting his own events and helping others get the word out about theirs, he dabbled in a few other ventures, including lining up a monthly DJ night at the Oasis, putting on sporadic parties and shows at Rooz Cafe, and hosting a folk night, again at the Stork Club. Following his return to the East Bay, Stork laid low for a while, until he began talking with the Stork Club early this year in hopes of starting up a rock and roll night, which has now manifested itself into a once-monthly happening.
“The Seeya Later thing is…really collaborative,” Stork shared. “Sometimes I’ll do the flier or the booking or what-not, and sometimes someone else will do [it].”
Over the years, there is no doubt that Stork has been forced to evolve to accommodate the changing times, especially in light of the dramatic shift in the way bands garner attention and promote music.
“I’ve seen a massive change here since the early '90s,” he said. “The Internet changed everything.”
What Stork is referring to is the ability of artists to make, record, and share music on their own accord, particularly with the help of websites like MySpace.
“In '97 I was getting cassette tapes and seven-inches in the mail from bands, and that was the culture,” he explained. “[Now] a band could form, create, and disseminate [its] music, literally without leaving the house—for free—without having to create anything [tangible] or lick stamps. [That makes for] an explosion of all sorts of different kinds of bands.”
But therein lies the real problem, as the East Bay doesn’t appear to be doing much to deal with the flood of creativity and invention coming from its residents—at least on the surface. While the number of gigs, parties, and shows in the underground house scene continue to multiply, shows at legitimate venues increase at a much slower rate.
“But that hasn’t been needed,” Stork argued, pointing to the warehouse and illegitimate venues that have been more than happy to host live music, as well as the few clubs and bars in existence that advocate live music for a reasonable price. And it won’t come about unless there is an increased demand for those venues and a commitment to making it affordable and accessible to the public.
Furthermore, while newer publications like Oakland Magazine and The Oakbook have sprung up and cover music to an extent, “[they make] it appear that the city is fostering a music scene,” Stork said. “But it doesn’t address why it’s an underground culture and receives negative attention.”
As for where this change will come from—if it comes: “It’s not going to start with more Uptowns or more Foxes,” Stork said, referring to the two major concert venues in downtown Oakland that cater largely to out-of-town artists and charge higher covers. “If businesses…don’t identify the potential, they’re not gonna care.”
Likewise, if participants in the scene don’t consider new above-ground and/or all-ages venues to be a real need, there won’t be any push for change. And perhaps that’s the truth about Oakland—that it’s a city with a music scene that flourishes outside of the spotlight.
More than anything, Stork wants to discredit the notion that Oakland is in the shadow of other music and art scenes. While he believes that hub cities tend to have a “greater number of bands imitating one another” as well as a “smaller number of genuine artists,” Stork maintains that Oakland is unique in that it puts out more interesting and eclectic music than is typical of the aforementioned hub cities.
“It’s a pretty incredible place,” he said. “And being able to participate is…really fun for me. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t.”
Stork admits that eventually he would like to plant more solid roots, possibly pursuing the dream of settling down with a family and a home, but it’s his grandmother’s advice to “always do what you love doing” that has kept him in the game this long, despite the struggles and disappointments he sometimes encounters.
“I like the challenge,” he said.