The Underground is Alive and Well… and Living in Ohio (Part 1) The Underground is Alive and Well… and Living in Ohio (Part 1)

The Weakness - Guinea Pig Tour 2009

The Weakness - Guinea Pig Tour 2009

Part 1

2009 is a strange time to be in an indie band. A shot at serious success for left-field bands is becoming an increasingly viable aspiration, more so than in the early 90’s when Nirvana proved to the industry that there was a market for dangerous music. While grunge’s initial surge was more successful at spawning a legion of contracted hard rock clones than keeping independents on the radio, we now live in a time when “oddballs” like Bright Eyes and Modest Mouse can consistently find themselves appearing in the upper tier of the Billboard Top 40 after a single week of sales. Indie is becoming sustainable and by God this dying industry is taking notice.

So what has this environment done to the ambitions of “weird” new bands? Should I send our demo to Thurston Moore in hopes he’ll dig it and release it on Ecstatic Peace! or maybe put in a good word for us at Matador? Should we move to L.A. and attempt to cash in on this obsession with the Smell scene? Should we save up, record our album with Steve Albini, cross our fingers and wait for Pitchfork to give us a career? Needless to say, these current conditions create all kinds of inner turmoil within local music communities, within bands, within individuals. Endlessly enticing shortcuts vs. touring with no money for ten years and achieving nothing.
Luckily, just as I found myself entertaining these very thoughts last year, a book was sent down from the heavens and rescued me from temptation, er, my roommate let me borrow it. I’m referring to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, a beautiful ode to the uphill battles of American independent punk bands in the 80’s with extended features on heavyweights such as Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and Fugazi. Good Christ, seriously, everyone read this book. The collective message from these dozen or so band profiles is a deafening, “Fuck success!”, something I’ve needed to be reminded of ever since my high school pop-punk band dissolved senior year.
Naturally, I was pretty curious to see if this world of word-of-mouth venues, makeshift record labels, and (the real important part) exciting and original music still existed today. And so, a series of why-the-hell-not’s (Why don’t we just re-record those demos? Why don’t we just get ’em mastered? Why don’t we just put 50 copies together? Why don’t we just book some shows?) led to a six-date tour of Ohio. While this seems incredibly minimal, its purpose was to help us figure out how the hell a band tours and supports an album in the first place, as this was our first time making such attempts, and to find out if there is such a thing as the Underground.

Certain technological advances have made it possible for any band to tour. Seriously. Any band. Quality, experience, or fanbase are hardly impediments anymore. All you need is a Myspace page and a lot of free time to mass message venues. We focused on Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, the logic being that since we have no idea what the hell we’re doing, we might as well do it near our homes.
Our first show (which became our “release show” by default) in Cincinnati was in this unmarked warehouse simply known as “Bunk,” located in an abandoned portion of the notoriously sketchy neighborhood called Over the Rhine. No windows or signs, yet about 50-some kids managed to show up. Apparently, spaces like this are pretty common, seedy and run-down warehouses that a few punk kids buy up and stick a PA system inside. Naturally, their life-spans are pretty short, no single space lasting longer than about a year and a half as their owners either run out of money, get too many noise citations, or get a single health inspection. It’s the kind senseless kamikaze behavior that can only stem from extremely passionate and reckless individuals. Ah, punk rock. This particular space doubles as an art gallery (as many do) with a few cool black and white murals and a fantastic set of Christmas lights arranged into a pentagram on a wall behind the merch “table” (a wooden door laid across two carpenter supports). As hilariously jankety as the place was, I still managed to get shit for my Eclipse drum set.

Sound Guy (person that turned up our two microphones): Ha, I remember getting an Eclipse drum set for Christmas in the fourth grade (read: “I am vastly superior to you”).

Me: Oh, yeah, that’s when I got this one. I guess I never bothered to upgrade (read: “I wish to set your grease-hair on fire”).

Ultimately, these are the kinds of places I thrive in, where I can screw parts up and not worry about it, where I don’t have to agonize over being professionally accurate, where freaking the fuck out and bleeding all over my snare drum is totally appropriate. It’s as if the bare austerity of the space itself makes me want to compensate with extravagant outpourings of misguided noise.
So we played, our friends left to get schwastied and take hilarious facebook pictures, and we stuck around for the two other bands, who ended up completely blowing us away. Gratis played an unbroken thirty minutes of post-hardcore thrash infused with jazz breakdowns (who else hates using this word?) and formless feedback segments. Equal parts chaos and meticulous structure. Also, their main guy (or was there one?) had hilariously groomed turn-of-the-century sideburns and suspenders. Bonus points for ill-advised fashion. Child Bite headlined and kind of came off as a drinking man’s Liars. They were proof that the post-punk revival can actually be fun and deviant. And they had some of the best damn bass lines. Good Christ, I loved them. Afterwards, we bonded over our mutual experiences at Russian Recording in Bloomington where they recorded several singles and we got our album mastered. Where fawning “Your set was fucking rad!”-isms are obligatory, we felt we had to be consistent and frequent with them to actually make it clear that we were serious. Because we were serious. They were fucking rad. Anyways, the night ended with us failing to provide pot for Child Bite because we’re complete losers.
Our next show was at this bar in Akron called Annabell’s, which had a pretty killer stage area in the basement, the support beams thickly littered with band stickers. At this point, it should be noted that all the band members are either nineteen or twenty. So of course everyone in the bar was at least seven years older. This made for a pretty amusing environment. When adults watch teenagers lose their shit and suicidally attack their instruments, they tend to stand about fifteen feet away. They tend to not move and clap politely. They tend to say things to you afterwards like, “Did you guys have fun?” with only the best intentions. Needless to say, we didn’t sell any albums that night. But it ended up being totally worth it as we made friends with the headlining band Phantods after their set. Phantods (the same age as the audience) play a pretty slick combination of gypsy pop and hard rock. Think all the most rockin’ bits from the new Decemberists album, but a touch more klezmer. They turned out to be some of the coolest, most genuine musicians I’ve met, and we hung out with them and these two stereotypical Oi!’s that looked like the leads from SLC Punk who eventually asked us to:
a.) check out their punk band God’s Black 45 on Myspace
b.) join their cult in which they have sex with their cats and rape babies
and c.) come to their show at a local Hot Topic
(We ended up only managing to do ones of those things.)
So on a totally absurd scale that I just now made up in which 1 is “AT&T corporate picnic gig” and 10 is “too cool for Ian McKaye,” this Akron show was somewhere around a 7. Of course I was totally overreacting at the time and might have given it a 5 or 6 that night, but we met some cool guys, learned about this totally cool new Big Business record from the gangly soundman (a real one this time!) and were asked to join a violent anarchic cult. Not a bad deal.

One Response about “The Underground is Alive and Well… and Living in Ohio (Part 1)”

  • Kevin says:

    I’m the friend who left to get schwastied!

    Good read though. Your set was definitely excellent, and I hope it all works out!