Singer Melissa Loera wouldn’t be fronting her own band, Miss Chief, if it wasn’t for the music and arts community in the Inland Empire. Much less playing an integral role in the I.E.'s DIY music scene, as one of the organizers and curators of the annual Saturation Fest, which returns to Riverside this weekend.
Loera was born in Fontana, the child of Mexican immigrants. Her parents worked hard to provide a comfortable life for Melissa and her older sister, Stephanie, who had a band of her own and would frequent shows put on by I.E.-based label Silencio Recordings.
Silencio, founded in 2003 by Lou Anda and the late Sean Pineda, is credited by many as giving rise to today's Inland Empire music community. The label mentored and supported anyone who was trying to get an artistic project off the ground in the I.E. From musicians to zine makers to artists, Anda and his crew would provide the tools and materials people needed to improve or spread their craft. Silencio threw free or cheap shows and festivals at breweries, coffee shops and small music venues across the I.E., making just enough money to continue pressing records and throwing events for friends.
“The founders, Lou and Sean, were very supportive,” Loera says of those early days. “If you wanted to do something, they were all for it. When my sister asked Lou, ‘Why are there no girl bands in the I.E.?’ he said, 'Why don’t you start one?'”
Although Melissa was sheltered by her parents and wasn’t able to attend Silencio’s events, she lived vicariously through her big sister, and knew she wanted to be involved in music as soon as she was old enough.
Silencio Recordings' influence began to wane around 2010, when Loera turned 19. Some musicians stayed in the area, but many of the homegrown I.E. bands moved to L.A. in hopes of reaching a larger audience. But though many musicians left, the influence of the scene they created was permanent, and the I.E. arts community never truly fizzled out.
Loera formed Miss Chief with her sister and a couple of other local musicians in the I.E., but moved to L.A. in 2010 to be closer to a fellow I.E.-born musician she’d fallen in love with. Right away, she could tell the city's music scene, with its many transplant bands trying to "make it," didn't provide the close-knit community she was used to. Worse, she felt that venues didn’t treat musicians as human beings but as a way to make money.
“It’s competitive in L.A., and there’s a very narcissistic, vain mentality sometimes,” Loera says. “People are from different states or countries, and they just want to get paid. They only think of doing music in a general sense.”
After three years of hustling in the city, Loera's spirit was broken, and Miss Chief as a band was no longer. She moved back to the Inland Empire and planned to put her musical aspirations to rest, but her family and friends convinced her otherwise. After a hiatus and lots of outside encouragement, Loera decided to revive Miss Chief as a solo project, and performed for the first time in months with a new crop of local musicians, whom she called her “misters.”
“Today, you can’t really make a living off of being an artist like you used to,” Loera says. “It could be really disheartening. The I.E. is home to a community and really good support system telling you otherwise; that’s what really helped me to continue to pursue music.”
Although the original community created by Silencio Recordings is no longer present, there are still creative people, musicians, photographers and artists who choose to reside far east of Los Angeles in order to save money and to be part of a supportive environment.
The arts community is small, according to Michael Rey, bassist for Miss Chief, but it’s unified and growing. “The big difference between the I.E. and L.A. or O.C. is there’s [fewer] creative people in the I.E. It’s not something I want to say, and I would love to change that.”
Rey says that everyone is hustling to help the scene flourish. For instance, Daniel Aaron Flores, the current drummer for Miss Chief, runs a company called Still Life Press that makes stamps, buttons and zines. Loera has worked with Flores and a local artist named Amanda Martin to create zines that help promote shows and local bands.
For his part, Rey plays in three different groups and bought his own duplicator so he can start helping local bands create tapes to take to shows. He hopes his project, called El Rey Tapes, will turn into the I.E.’s equivalent of Burger or Lolipop Records. His long-term goal is to open an all-ages DIY space in the next year and use it to help promote local bands and encourage folks from other scenes to see what the I.E. has to offer.
“The goal is to get kids and musicians from L.A. and the O.C. to come to the Inland Empire. We can make shit happen by having a big all-ages space, a DIY venue,” Rey says. “That’s what will help the scene grow.”
There’s something special about the I.E. that isn’t present in any other Southern California scene. To Rey and Loera, it’s a mixture of everyone growing up in the same socioeconomic status, recognizing that making money would never be the end goal, and maintaining the DIY spirit of Silencio Recordings. Both Rey and Loera live with their wholly supportive parents, and both claim it’s the only way they’d be able to survive and make the art they love.
Chelsea Brown of Summer Twins, a Riverside-based band in which Rey also performs, adds that the I.E. is a special place because it supports a much smaller, more close-knit scene than its neighbors to the west. "Because L.A. and O.C. are so saturated with bands, it feels competitive at times," Brown says. "You have to really work hard to gain an audience. I never really felt that competition in the I.E. and never felt judged, and that really allowed us and other bands to explore and try out new things."
The growth and passion of the I.E.’s scene is apparent in the diversity and expansion of Saturation Fest, happening over three days and nights this weekend in downtown Riverside. Beginning in 2001, the free, DIY festival has always been based on community participation. Venues sign on to host parties, bands sign up to perform, and no one gets paid. Loera, who works as a talent booker for the festival, says it's more about soul and connecting different communities to the I.E., since money isn’t involved.
When the festival first started, only a few hundred people attended. But over the years, organizers estimate they've had over 10,000 attendees, with more coming each year.
“What’s wonderful about it is it brings together bands from the I.E. and showcases their music — and now, today, there’s a lot of bands from outside the I.E. that want to come and play,” says Loera.
Both Melissa and Rey agree that the I.E. can be seen as SoCal’s oasis for musicians who want to grow and spread their art in a collaborative, noncompetitive space. It will take time, but Miss Chief believes passionate musicians will flock to the I.E. and discover what it’s like to make music without constantly worrying about making ends meet.
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Saturation Fest takes place this Friday through Sunday, May 27-29, at various participating locations in downtown Riverside. For more information, visit Saturation Fest's official website and Facebook page.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article gave this year's estimated attendance at 10,000, but that figure represents the total estimated attendance since the festival's first year. We regret the error.]