Ask most music bookers in Los Angeles the bare minimum needed for a band to play, and they’ll say simply a willing venue — whether that be the Troubadour or the downtown upstart known as the Smell or someone’s dumpy rental. Ask Cameron Rath, who organizes a monthly biking and outdoor concert series that’s an uninhibited spree around the Westside, and he’ll say an easily accessible electric outlet that can be hijacked for an hour or two. Sometimes not even a socket is necessary; a generator or a car battery works in a pinch.
That kind of DIY pluck is at the heart of Fmly, the grassroots organization started by Venice denizen Rath and his friend Noah Klein, now based in New York. Over the last three years, Fmly has spawned a blog with correspondents all over the country, a few pop-up venues, an all-day music festival and, its centerpiece, the monthly bike ride that’s one of the most exciting showcases for young bands in Los Angeles today. The range of sounds on any given night can include sea-salty beach punk, disjointed hip-hop, dreamy sound experiments and oddball folk, much of it inspired by local heroes like No Age and Ariel Pink.
Counting the ride and the pop-up venues, such as the joyfully seedy Bacchus in Mid-City, Fmly has featured performances by Entrance, Soft Pack, Abe Vigoda, 60 Watt Kid, Baths and Princeton, all regulars at clubs east of Hollywood, where most of these bands have found a spiritual home. The often-unsigned bands that play at Fmly don’t make a dime. Instead, there’s a different selling point: the positive vibes from a free-spirited but tightknit community.
“Most places where bands can play emphasize making money and it’s not about building community,” said Rath during an interview that occurred on the patchy roof of McWorld, one of the makeshift venues used for shows. “Fmly is the opposite of that.”
“Making music is a creative and personal thing, and putting a price on that is counterintuitive to its nature,” continued Rath, who is starting at Antioch University’s master’s program in urban sustainability this fall. “In places like Ethiopia and Ghana, people rally around music playing in the streets. We’re bringing it back to that element.”
Rides influenced by the one in Los Angeles have sprouted up, either as regular occurrences or one-offs, in Santa Cruz and Oakland, as well as Rochester, N.Y., and Aix-en-Provence, France. Other plans are in the works as well, including a community center that will thrive on principles of urban sustainability. The next ride in Los Angeles will be April 2.
On one ride a while back, Rath, 22, played host in a raggedy chicken costume, as he often prefers, greeting his fellow bikers with clawed high-fives. Balancing on the pedals of his beat-up red Schwinn, Rath, with large hazel eyes and an easy grin, was bellowing friendly demands on a megaphone. “Everyone is family,” he shouted. “We all look out for each other. No one is left behind!”
He was addressing some 200 cyclists milling around Venice Beach’s skate park, the usual starting point for the mellow cruise that attracts all manner of riders: dirt bikers with Misfits patches on their jean jackets; skinny-jeaned hipsters on vintage 10-speeds and fixed-gear bikes; girls who’ve strewn flowers around the baskets of their touring bikes; and serious cyclists decked out in padded fluorescent garb. Even in the colder months, Fmly regularly attracts more than 100 cyclists.
Throughout the night that stretches into the wee hours, the group will ride in one big tangle, whooping at cars whose drivers often wave back, and making about five stops at secret locations around the Westside to watch bands perform.
Jason Lovering, a line cook living in Venice, was riding with Fmly for the first time. He found the pace a little slow — the rides leisurely cover 15 to 20 miles over the course of the night — but he didn’t deny the energy. “I liked the sense of unity with other riders,” Lovering, 29, said later. “I didn’t know any of them whatsoever … but on the ride, we were one group. It was a nice feeling.”
Sometimes Rath has permission from the location before he floods it with dancing college kids in torn sneakers. Such was the case with Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, where the riders stopped to watch Fidlar, a rough and melodic surf-punk band. The crowd, after riders had abandoned their bikes in heaps or locked them to anything bolted in cement, was a writhing sweaty mass by the end of the first song.
Fidlar, based in Highland Park, has played the Fmly ride, which celebrated its 1-year anniversary in November, five or six times. The four-piece led by Zac Carper and Elvis Kuehn made its first live appearance on a ride last April. Since then, Fidlar has grown in enviable fashion: This month, it played four shows in Austin during SXSW, and in April, the act will release a 7-inch on White Iris, the über-cool boutique label.
“The energy at Fmly is just unbeatable,” Kuehn said. “It’s so much different from playing at a regular venue. Everyone gets into it; you don’t have people standing there judging the music. They want to have a good time.”
That includes parents, so long as they’re on two wheels. One of Fmly’s most fervent fans is Robert Quijano, a mechanic in his early 50s. His son, Robert Jr., one of the ride leaders who ensures that no one is left behind with a flat tire or any other problem, first brought him. “I’ve been to hundreds of concerts,” Robert Sr. said, “but the feeling here is amazing. It’s different from the ‘70s; everyone’s taking care of each other.”
Though the energy is reliably good, it’s not without an edge. At the Fidlar show, one guy hurled a metal garbage can against a brick wall. Rath and the other ride leaders quickly surrounded him, locked him in a friendly huddle and told him to chill out.
The musical-minded cyclists impressively manage to be a self-policing unit, but they’ve also had interactions with the actual enforcers of the law. Riders have been ticketed for minor traffic infractions and inadequate gear, gestures that some riders see as discouragement from the police to group rides in general, which can disrupt traffic and have sometimes resulted in outright conflict.
Last spring, officers got into an altercation in Hollywood with a cyclist on a BP oil spill protest ride organized by Critical Mass, an activist bicycling group. YouTube video circulated of the incident, rousing the ire of the bike community and giving the police a PR puzzle to sort out. Often, Rath has not secured permission or permits from the spaces he’s scouted on his bike, hunting for outdoor outlets that can be covertly commandeered. “We like to reclaim urban spaces,” he said. “We’re like eminent domain but publicly run and no one gets displaced.”
Such tactics haven’t always sat well with the police, who have kicked Fmly out of sites, but as the riders approached Pan Pacific Park for their July celebration last summer, the cops escorted them down 3rd Street, stopping traffic on their behalf.
At the park, riders drank alcohol from open bottles and set off fireworks while two cops in a squad car watched from a distance. “If they can keep it mellow, we can keep it mellow,” LAPD officer Ken Gutierrez said. “There are going to be these rallies and organizations, so we’re here to facilitate their safety and freedom. We can’t enforce every single rule, but if there’s a major infraction, we’re here to step in.”
The threat of getting busted is part of the thrill for some of the bands.
Truman Peyote, an experimental electronic duo who recently moved to Los Angeles from Boston, played their first ride this month. “We played for two hours in some parking lot outside of a random building,” Caleb Johannes said. “The directions from Cameron were something like ‘find this alley, take a left turn here’ … . There were two cops in a squad car watching us for a while. I was surprised it went down with no trouble.”
Fmly likes to flirt with the limits but without diminishing the ride’s most salient mission: to offer a unique and accepting experience in a landscape that can quickly turn predictable and cold for even the most fledgling of bands.
Rath’s dedication to the series stems from a time when he didn’t have the energy to organize something of Fmly’s breadth. When he was 14, he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a disorder of the blood and marrow that can lead to leukemia. Though he still struggles with the affliction, his health is not as dire as in his teenage years, which he spent in and out of Children’s Hospital.
For the bands that play Fmly, Rath’s devotion is inspirational. Keyboardist-programmer Nathan Huber, one half of Kid Infinity, his project with singer-rapper Ryan Pardeiro that often incorporates 3-D technology, remembers when Rath made arrangements for one of the rides last year from his hospital bed.
“He was trying to get some amps ready,” Huber said. “Everything about Fmly is lighthearted and open, and that’s all from Cameron.”
In addition to Fmly being the model synthesis of Rath’s obsessions with biking culture and live music, it also offers a kind of therapy. “I’m creating the love I missed out on then. I was very frustrated with people my age; I never had the invincibility of youth,” Rath said. “Fmly is my romanticized, idealized vision of getting along with people.”