Within its 15 years of existence, the brand went through a number of phases. Shifts in the music industry, audience migration, urban and culture change constantly challenged Tommy’s will and desire to continue to build this scene he dreamed of.
Starting in 2006, every five years he lost solid supporters and artists; people that believed in his movement but felt the South Bay was sorely lacking in other sustainable ways. There were no hard feelings, but the thinning audiences didn’t help to his cause.
“It was just that first wave of audience disappearing (when reality hit,)” he remembers. “I could see that my audience was now thin, so when I tried to do the same shit I was doing for the last five years, I had a few shows that were just dead. Like no one was out to see these Beat Junkie DJs, and it felt like a straight failure.”
UG’s next home would be Sofa Lounge, also located in the SoFA. There, he cultivated a new crowd. Old Yelp reviews from 2008 tout Sofa Lounge for having good drinks, attentive bartenders but most of all, good music and vibes. No doubt, the work of Tommy Aguilar.
However, the Yelp reviews end there. Sure enough, in 2008-2009, the streets were dead again. Another cycle of audience dips, redevelopment and need to find a new home brought UG to formulate Live at the Pagoda in the Fairmont Hotel in 2010.
The Pagoda had two connected rooms: one housed the bar and a lounge area, the other room was big enough to mount a stage and fit at least 50-plus in there comfortably. The space held sophisticated air which lent itself to its crowds: young, modern folk with a taste for cool in every varied sense of the word. Tommy’s curation always attracted artisans from every form and walk.
This was my first introduction to Universal Grammar. I caught acts like Yuna, Andy Allo, Hiatus Kaiyote, Little Dragon, Mayer Hawthorne, Kaytranada, Jose James, Tiron & Ayomari and countless others. It was so refreshing to hear music I found via digital digging in a life atmosphere. At the time, some of these acts hadn’t performed in San Francisco yet. Some sounds barely broke music’s barrier.
“We did some future Latino shit on our last night,” Tommy remembers. “That was the kind of space we were. We weren’t just doing the Kaytranada-future sound, but also the Latin alternative realm. Not just rock bands, but electronic shit too; Cumbia-electronic, etc. We were pushing the global stamp before anyone was really trying to market that. I still don’t think anyone is really doing that.”
The savvy and wit that first fueled Universal Grammar and embedded itself into the brand now was matched with gumption and resilience. After years of continuously needing to switch venues, re-cultivate itself and whole audiences every few years, the easy route would’ve been to take his talents elsewhere. But ever since finding their current home at The Continental Bar in SoFA district, Tommy’s resilience is starting to pay off.
So what does this mean for San Jose’s identity? Tommy insists that UG is just one piece of the greater puzzle. A thriving San Jose means a booming tech industry, and Silicon Valley’s success ensued a migration of foreigners (both nationally and internationally) into the South Bay that want a piece of the pie. Granted, this influx is good: high rises are cropping up in spaces that were dirt lots just two years ago. There’s a new density that hopefully out flows onto the streets.
Yet the city still grapples in defining its identity. Tech might have put it on the map, but the homegrown art scene has held San Jose down for years, building bridges internally and with the few outsiders that integrate. There’s no denying the need to embrace technologic advancements but for guys like Tommy, new Silicon Valley is far from the ideal.
“My reality of San Jose doesn’t include tech,” he says. “I grew up on the East Side, I still live in the hood and embrace that counter culture, that analog culture if you will, of artisans.”