Apr 062011
Authors: Matt Miller

In a small garage just north of the CSU campus, the seven members of the Fort Collins band Candy Claws begin to trickle into their cramped practice space.

It is April 1 and just one week before the breakout band plays Fort Collins Music eXperiment (FoCoMX), a local music festival dedicated to showcasing a budding Northern Colorado music scene.

A spider web of Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling paint a red glow on a room packed with drums, amps, guitars, boxes, Nerf guns and a snakeskin.

Blankets cover the windows and egg cartons line the walls to absorb sound.

It doesn’t seem like much, but to the band that epitomizes the growing Fort Collins music scene, it’s home.

“In Fort Collins we get a really great group of people who go to all the shows –– it’s a great feeling,” said Candy Claws co-founder, vocalist and keyboardist Ryan Hover. “We know most of the people. It’s more relaxed.”

The band, which has been together for five years, just got back from a cross-country tour that included stops in Canada and seven shows at the South By South West Music Festival in Austin, Texas. For them, playing in Fort Collins is a homecoming to a music scene just gaining steam on a national level.

On April 8 and 9 Candy Claws and more than 250 other local bands will perform across 30 Fort Collins venues for the third FoCoMX.

But only a few years ago, the Fort Collins music scene was just a bunch of talented young musicians, shut off from each other and from other areas.

About five years ago, local musician Greta Cornett co-founded the non-profit Fort Collins Music Association (FoCoMA) as a way to educate and organize musicians.

“I’ve been a musician in Fort Collins since 1996, and we always noticed there wasn’t a lot of attention in Fort Collins,” Cornett said. “Nobody really knew there was a scene up here.”

Then in the spring of 2009, FoCoMA sponsored its first FoCoMX festival. With no backing money, Cornett and other members of FoCoMA bought a pack of green wristbands and sold them for $10 for fans to go see 12 bands at four venues.

Three years later, the festival has exploded into a showcase of local music that has started to gain attention on a national scale.

“We’ve got so many musicians in Northern Colorado it’s great to see them get national attention,” Cornett said.

Last year, Candy Claws got attention from online music publication Pitchfork and also gained a spot on NPR critic Robin Hilton’s top 10 list. The Denver Post even hailed Fort Collins as a music scene ready to pass Boulder and Denver.

“Bands are moving here because it’s a musical destination,” Cornett said.

She added when bands go out on the road and still call Fort Collins home, it is key to gaining interest in the Fort Collins music scene.

Johnny Hickman, co-founder songwriter and guitarist of the band Cracker, who mostly grew up in California, has settled down in Fort Collins because of its growing music scene.

His band, best known for its 1993 album, “Kerosene Hat,” has toured the world almost nonstop for the last 20 years. Hickman now calls Fort Collins home when not on the road.

Hickman moved here six years ago after meeting bands from Fort Collins while touring.

“I really liked the music scene,” Hickman said. “All the musicians seemed very supportive, which is the sign of a good music scene.”

In a town dominated by many younger musicians, Hickman is able to pass on his wisdom gained from years of performing to bands just starting out.

“It’s cool to be able to let them know what I know,” Hickman said. “Sometimes they ask me, ‘What city should I move to?’ I say stay right here.”

Hickman played at FoCoMX three years ago but has been on the road for every festival since then. On April 9, he will play at Road 34 with Jason Larson from The Piggies at FoCoMX.

“If I have a sold out show in New York, I treat it the same way walking into Road 34 with a guitar to play an acoustic set,” Hickman said. “I’m glad that I’m home for FoCoMX.”

He added that FoCoMX has started to put Fort Collins on the map as a music destination.

“It was always a strong music scene, but it needed something to bring it together,” Hickman said. “It’s really grown the last several years, and FoCoMX is kind of the center of that.”

But Hickman says that Fort Collins is just beginning to emerge as a music hub.

“Sometime in the next few years, my gut feeling is that this place is going to blow up,” Hickman said. “Fort Collins is about due.”

The 2010 FoCoMX drew about 5,000 fans to 22 venues. This year, about 7,500 are expected at 34 venues and festival organizers are trying to find new ways to accommodate the growing interest.

“We try to grow the festival in proper ways,” FoCoMA co-founder Cornett said. “We realized we would have to think outside the box to grow the festival.”

This year, the festival will include a karaoke lounge at Gelazzi, silent disco at the Old Goodwill and silent film at the Lyric Cinemacafe.

FoCoMX is even drawing music companies from around the country to scout out bands.

Steve Hendriksen, a 2008 CSU alumnus, is returning to Fort Collins for the first time to see how the Fort Collins music scene has progressed.

Hendriksen, who moved to Athens, Ga. to work for the radio promotion firm Team Clermont just before the first FoCoMX, is coming out on his own dime to an entirely different music scene.

“It felt like the music scene was expanding and becoming more creative right around the time FoCoMA started,” Hendriksen, best known in his time at CSU as KCSU DJ Maverick. “It seemed like all the pieces were falling into place right around when I left.”

Hendriksen added that Athens is one of the top music scenes in the country with bands like R.E.M. that have paved the way and said Fort Collins has the same ingredients to follow.

“(Fort Collins) is going to need some heavy hitter bands to put it on the map,” Hendriksen said. “You have Candy Claws and Pretty Lights showing people outside of Colorado what Fort Collins is.”

In Athens, Hendriksen said that the local music festival, AthFest, is incredibly important to the scene.

“This is what Fort Collins could become; the steps are the same,” Hendriksen said.

FoCoMX takes place on April 8 and 9 at venues across Fort Collins. A $15 wristband provides access to any participating venue both days. A full schedule, lineup and tickets are available online at www.FoCoMX.org.

Entertainment Editor Matt Miller can be reached at verve@collegian.com.

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