Lead guitarist and vocalist Tony Assi (left) jams with bass player Jesse Nestler (right). Photo courtesy of Brandon Olesky
Lead guitarist and vocalist Tony Assi (left) jams with bass player Jesse Nestler (right). Photo courtesy of Brandon Olesky

Although there was no moshing at the Crêpe Place last Saturday night, the band’s friends bobbed their heads to each guitar lick and drum beat. The members of Watergate Sandals met in Porter College’s dorms during their freshman year. When hang out sessions turned into music jams at the Kresge Co-op, the group decided to form a band. The student musicians have come a long way from these on-campus jams.

Surf rock-style riffs echoed off the Crêpe Place’s walls as Watergate Sandals commanded the stage. The combination of amplifier feedback and angsty vocals echoing with reverb resulted in a groovy, raw sound.

The venue was lit by dim purple lights, creating a chill atmosphere. A crowd of Santa Cruz residents and UC Santa Cruz students attended the concert. A core group of Porter College affiliates stood directly in front of the band ­— they have followed Watergate Sandals since the band formed in March 2013.

Lead guitarists and vocalists Izzy Kaufman and Tony Assi are third-years at UCSC. Aside from playing gigs at local venues, they still recall their first house show in Santa Cruz in May 2013, only a few weeks after the band formed.

“It was just a random house show. It was outside, and surprisingly, a bunch of our freshman friends came to the show,” Kaufman said. “Everyone started moshing at the end and the cops got called.”

While Watergate Sandals often play shows at local venues throughout Santa Cruz, Kaufman and Assi also stressed the importance of house shows as a way to build a stronger sense of community among UCSC students.

“Venues are nice because you get paid, and you get to play [in] a professional setting,” Kaufman said, “but house shows are more fun.”

House shows are also more accessible for students since they are usually free, Assi said. Through friends or word of mouth, local music has a way of spreading in Santa Cruz.

Aaron Kaufman, also known as DJ Cadaver at KZSC, has known the band since its start. Although Aaron has no familial relation to Izzy Kaufman, he heard about Watergate Sandals through one of his housemates who is associated with members of the band. As Aaron became closer with Watergate Sandals, he often attended the band’s shows around town.

“There’s definitely a decent [music] scene in town. It’s not incredible, but there are a lot of passionate and artistic people living in this city,” Aaron Kaufman said. “[Watergate Sandals] would’ve come to me through the grapevine somehow.”

Assi described the band’s sound as “kinda crunchy.” This means the amplifier feedback often includes lo-fi hisses, creating a raw sound, as opposed to the sound of a polished recording on vinyl.

The “small town” vibe makes it possible for musicians to become familiar with each other. The support behind the music is apparent in people’s willingness to open up their houses for a live set of tunes and an audience ready to listen.

“Santa Cruz has an awesome local music community, but at the same time it’s not like Los Angeles or San Francisco. It’s a bit more tight knit, [so] it makes us stand out,” Izzy Kaufman said. “There are plenty of bands that got their start in Santa Cruz.”

One such band is reggae group The Expendables and bluegrass and folk trio The Devil Makes Three.

“The scene in Santa Cruz is kind of tricky,” Aaron Kaufman said. “It’s not necessarily somewhere a lot of bands stop when they’re touring. The scene here though is dedicated and there are a lot of bands that care.”

Check out Watergate Sandals live in downtown Santa Cruz at Subrosa on Jan. 21. Listen to the band’s music at watergatesandals.bandcamp.com.