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Hidden, but vibrant: Capturing the Machias music scene

When you think about Machias and the Downeast area, what comes to mind? Lobster, blueberries, a great college, pristine wilderness, perhaps? Does a strong music scene come to mind, though?

We set out to discover just how vibrant and diverse the hidden Machias music scene is. What was found is an immensely intertwined community based on a love for art, music, and life in Machias. I discussed whether community members, ranging from DJs, local musicians, and event organizers, have seen a revival or a decline in local music culture.

Student Joey F. playing guitar at UMM

To understand what it’s like to be a musician in the Machias area, I spoke with the members of “Oatmeal Bear,” Lucy Zwigard and Tyler LiBrizzi. Two incredibly kind and fascinating individuals.

Zwigard describes the style of music the duo plays as psychedelic folk. “We use that because we [feel] music is a spiritual experience… [the music] is pretty down-to-earth, like folky, earthy… It’s emerging currently and evolving. This is an early iteration of Oatmeal Bear’s new sound,” Zwigard explained. LiBrizzi added that their music is also about “creating music that’s mind-altering… stimulating us to love. Music for the heart and soul.”

For the performance I had the pleasure of seeing, their instruments consisted of a set of conga drums and shaker percussive instruments played by Zwigard, an electric-acoustic guitar played by LiBrizzi, and both of the musicians’ fabulous vocals. They’ve been writing music and performing for only a year, starting at an open mic event in Cherryfield, Maine (a short distance from Machias), mentioning that they felt very welcomed performing there.

When asked about Machias’ music culture, Zwigard compared living in the Downeast area with her time living in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Playing in a small town, venues, I feel like, are more multi-generational. Even the poster for tonight (performance at Machias venue, ‘The Undertow Underground’) said, ‘Everyone is welcome here.’ Whereas in a bigger city, technically everyone’s welcome, but it’s going to be more exclusive to certain groups or another, because of different social norms.”

LiBrizzi added in response, “It speaks to a culture that can be more vibrant in a small town setting than in a city, which is sort of the opposite of what, I think, we’re taught… Around here, it’s intergenerational, a healthy vibe, mixed around art, which is just a really great thing… A real community.” LiBrizzi continued to explain how if you go to a music venue in Machias, you hear everything from folk music to punk rock, country, and soul. This mix of genres and cultures is part of what makes music in Machias special.

“There’s a lot of kindness in the room… I really appreciate that,” Zwigard noted in regards to performing in Machias.

If you would like to learn more about Oatmeal Bear and where they are playing, check out their Instagram page, at Oatmeal_Bear_Music.

‘Oatmeal Bear’ performing at The Undertow Underground in Machias

To learn how UMM’s radio station, WUMM 91.1 FM, has contributed to Machias’ music culture, we spoke with seasoned DJ and former music professor Gene Nichols, as well as student WUMM manager Cody Cavaco.

Cavaco is a Sophomore in UMM’s Visual Arts program and  also keeps WUMM operating behind the scenes. When asked what the station brings to Machias, as far as musical culture, he answered, “We’re really the only variety [radio station] in the area… Our niche is that we don’t have one…”

Cavaco stated that he plans to make WUMM more physically involved in the community, first doing this by getting the individuals involved with the station “out there… and making connections.” He also would like to see the station sponsoring community events, such as the Machias Blueberry Festival and the Bad Little Falls Summer Concert Series, while hosting WUMM’s own events.

“There’s no shortage of music and music events in this town. Which is amazing, considering where we are, and I wasn’t expecting it coming here… Our DJs are [already] very involved. I mean, Gene Nichols is a local legend… All of our DJs have their foot in the door somewhere,” he declared.

On April 27, WUMM will host its second open mic event this semester for UMM students, but with a twist. The music played by the performers, some of which are also songwriters performing originals, will be recorded and burned onto a CD. When this event occurs, another article on this process will be released.

Just in the short time that Cavaco has been in Machias, he has noticed a large increase in the amount of musical events occurring in the town. “There are so many shows going on that I used to go to every single one because they were so far-and-few-in-between, but there’s so many going on that I’m actually too busy to go to them all… Since I started living in Machias, I’ve seen a whole lot more, and more involvement too, between local musicians and people going to see those musicians.”

Students Damien VanDerHorst (left), Cody Covaco (middle), Kameron Landry (right), playing music at UMM

As I entered the WUMM studio again to interview Nichols, I found him strumming a ukulele and singing insect themed parodies he wrote based on classic songs. One favorite was, in tune to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising, “Don’t go out tonight, they’re bound to take their bight, there’s a black fly on the rise.”

According to Nichols, “Machias ranks quite a bit behind Eastport (a town east from Machias) in our county, as far as artistic and musical goings on… I’ve been here for almost 40 years now, and anything we can do to raise the ‘water level’ here in town, of good artistic happenings [would be ideal.]”

“We need more performance opportunities and performance venues,” he mentioned, as a step in the right direction for creating a stronger musical culture in Machias. This raised the thought, couldn’t UMM host some local bands occasionally, similar to how the Undertow Underground (the venue mentioned earlier) does? UMM features two indoor locations that make ideal venues for music. Nichols mentioned that it would be nice to use the school’s performing arts center for events, but declared that fees would most likely be involved.

While Nichols would like to see more involvement with the community from UMM, he agrees with the members of Oatmeal Bear, in the sense that, “Lots of different [musical] styles are still going strong… There’s [also] a good, vital bunch of creative people still around.”

When asked if he’s seen a decline or resurgence in UMM and Machias’s music culture, he responded, “Since I got laid off [from UMM], of course, a decline. I had my hands in lots of different things… the ukulele club [for example]. I think, since this resurgence of DJs, that’s a good positive thing. And with Undertow sponsoring things live in town, it’s very promising.” Nichols continued to discuss that when he left, so did the school’s music program. Since this, a few music courses and private lessons have emerged, but no programs.

“The college needs to be here and be a strong force in the health of the area,” Nichols implied.

Gene Nichols in the WUMM Radio studio

Every individual interviewed discussed the Undertow Underground, the music venue established by the Machias business, and the Undertow Skate Shop. Because this business is perhaps the entity that has driven the resurgence of music in Machias the most, it was only fit to interview the owner, Jason Norman.

Norman has been hosting music events at the Undertow Underground since 2021 in the basement of his shop. “I’ve always facilitated music. Every living room I’ve ever had has been band practice. This basement is a real opportunity to expand on that for once,” he remarked. The events mostly consist of original music, with occasional cover songs, by musicians local to the Machias area. Similar to others, he stresses the importance of a diverse range of performances at Undertow, asserting that “art is art.” Norman also stated that he would like to see other types of performances in the future, such as comedy and poetry. While admission to the events is free, concessions are sold, with all proceeds going to the revival of the Machias skate park.

“If we get a skatepark built and a bigger music scene that everybody can come and enjoy, that would be good for our community… More important, it reminds our kids that we’re still thinking about them… We need to look back at our children and say, ‘Hey, what have we done for them.’ Especially with the drugs in this town and the surrounding towns, kids have nothing to do, and they easily… succumb to those drugs. If there’s someplace they can go, something new, something that’s up-to-date, maybe they’ll find a sport,” Norman stated as the reason he does so many of these events.

He also informed me that a UMM sorority had reached out to him, asking him how they could help with the events. He discussed that Undertow also does a can donation fundraiser to benefit the skatepark, and donating cans is a great way to help out.

The venue strives to host two events every month, with the next being on March 23rd, an open mic event. Acts of all types, genres, and skill levels are welcome to perform on stage. There are no auditions for the event at the moment. There will also be a concert on April 6th, which will have a range of bands featuring a group from Massachusetts known as “Hypnogog.”

If you are a musician, comedian, poet, or any type of performer in the Machias area, Norman urges that you reach out to him at 207-271-8858. “I will gladly put you on stage at our next event on March 23rd… Get up there and test your knees against the crowd… get yourself out there,” he stated.

“Just keep the music scene alive, keep the awareness going, and let’s get that skatepark,” Norman expressed.

Jason Norman in his shop, Undertow, in downtown Machias

In summary, if you are interested in attending music related events in the Machias area, some you can check out are the performances at the Undertow Underground, events at Machias restaurant “The Anchor,” the summer concert series Bad Little Falls, local open mics both in Machias and at the Franklin Veterans Club, events in both Lubec and Eastport, and events held by WUMM in the future, and events at UMM. It is recommended that you check Facebook as well for events in the area.

A short time ago, a fellow student told me, “Never a dull moment?! You’re in Machias!” Even though from the exterior, some may find Machias a quiet town where not a lot goes on, under the shell, those who are lucky enough to be University of Maine at Machias students are living in a beautiful and vibrant place. The Machias music scene is one thing that displays this best.

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