Rebel girls and rude boys, this one's for you: tonight's Punk Rock Karaoke invites everyone to sing along with his or her favorite songs for a good cause, as the Denver Health Collective hosts a traveling repertoire of punk hits. The karaoke project makes its first stop in Denver -- which also acts as a benefit for the Collective -- bringing with it a 500-plus song catalog of songs by Fugazi, Bratmobile, The Clash and more.
In advance of the gathering tonight, June 20, co-organizer Patrick Tyrrell spoke with Westword about the Punk Rock Karaoke Collective's formation, the importance of collaborating with grassroots organizations and why he geeks out over seeing Bikini Kill and Jawbreaker duke it out for the most requested karaoke spot.
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Westword: How did Punk Rock Karaoke start?
Patrick Tyrrell: So, there was a pretty small group of us in Chicago -- and each of us was organizing or involved in various campaigns and community groups. A lot of us were musicians, too, or at least musically inclined. We had been batting around this idea of doing a more fun fundraising project that involved karaoke. One of our organizers had the idea for a punk rock flavor, because it was the kind of music we were all into.
Because a lot of us were musicians, we thought, hey, whatever songs we can't find that are already out there, we can make ourselves. That initial idea in 2011 is what spurred forth this project, two years later. What started in Chicago has now expanded to the Northeast and also become this nationwide tour.
When we first started (making karaoke tracks) we were recording in a recording studio and it was a fun project. To make so many of the songs ourselves and then see people perform them -- it was just a good way to combine our love of music and performing with making sure a good cause gets supported, and to let people know about what is going on in their community.
It is a great concept, because when you look at the majority of karaoke catalogs, it is very Top 40-heavy -- but there is definitely a nationwide audience out there for punk-inspired performances.
I've seen lots of themed karaokes, and even punk rock karaoke itself -- we didn't invent that specific concept at all. I don't think anyone else has done it as a fundraiser or as a not-for-profit venture, but there is definitely similar versions of this karaoke. A lot of times it is a live band karaoke. But to my knowledge and from what I've seen, we have the largest custom catalog of punk rock songs that are prerecorded and more like regular karaoke. I think we also have the largest catalog in general -- we have over 500 songs that are all tailored to a punk rock flavor, with classic punk songs and modern stuff, too.
How do you pick the songs that will be made into tracks and used for Punk Rock Karaoke?
A lot of it is from our audience -- and we have a sense from being fans of the genre what the kind of standards are. We know we need certain bands, like The Clash or Ramones. People love Jawbreaker and all of those bands. But we get a lot of feedback from people so, one thing we tried to do was have a good representation of female-fronted bands. Aside from what we knew, we heavily solicited people that we know that were in Riot Grrrl bands or that performed in punk bands and got recommendations like L7, Bratmobile and Sleater-Kinney.
We collect them in a giant list and go with how much time we have to record, how complicated the songs are and then also, just a general sense of what people are requesting -- we let our audience guide us.
As a musician, I see it being a fun challenge to sort of become a catalog of songs that you love.
Oh yeah. I know so many stupid punk songs. (Laughs) I know them by heart. We've been doing this for a long time, and I really don't remember recording a lot of the first tracks -- but it's funny because sometimes we'll be doing an event and I'll realize, oh, that's me playing the guitar solo. I don't remember even doing it, but I know at one point I had committed it to memory.
The fact that you go in and record the tracks seems so integral to this working -- live music is one thing, but knowing every guitar tone or hearing a pedal being pushed in an actual recording is so key to knowing the whole song.
Our producer, his name is Joe Tessone -- who runs Mystery Street Recording Company, the studio we worked out of originally -- would spend hours just tweaking the tone of everything. He'd line up the original recording and our track and he's such a great producer, he would get it so it (sounded) indistinguishable. He would play a song side by side, and I couldn't tell if it was the original or ours.
For the touring edition of a Punk Rock Karaoke event, what does the night look like?
It really varies per town; some places are way more high energy than others. Normally, you show up and the first hour is a little more laid back -- we take requests and people mill around. No one wants to sing first, so there's usually more shyness happening than anything. Once we get through the first ten songs or so, the ball gets rolling. After that point, it is really high energy as the night goes on.
People do massive sing-alongs when a popular song comes up -- people rush the stage. We've had crowd surfing, we've had mosh pits, we've had rowdiness. I think in a lot of ways, most nights just feel like a show, you know? But it's a show where you get to see your friends performing. We try to foster a really participatory environment; we want to break down the barriers between the audience and the performer. We have three mics on stage and we always encourage people, if they like the song, to get up and sing with strangers. Great duets can happen spontaneously with two people that have never met each other before, but just love the band so much that they know what to do.
Because the venue we're doing it for in Denver is a little more D.I.Y., I think it will definitely feel more like a show. It's never like regular karaoke where you have one person singing awkwardly and everyone's just sitting there tapping their feet. It's never been like that.
What songs do you see performed or requested most often?
We actually keep data on everything -- we keep track of everything that's been requested. "Rebel Girl" by Bikini Kill and "Boxcar" by Jawbreaker are both tied at the top. For us, it is really geeky, but it is really exciting because Jawbreaker has beat Bikini Kill by one or two requests for the entire project. We've all been wondering, is Bikini Kill going to unseat Jawbreaker?
Then, the rest of the top five are: "Baby, I'm an Anarchist" by Against Me, "Linoleum" by NOFX, "Deceptacon" by Le Tigre and "Last Caress" by Misfits. So, that's the top requests, but there are certainly lots more -- like Fugazi, Descendents and Black Flag.
That's interesting data, and what sticks out to me is that two of Kathleen Hanna's projects -- Bikini Kill and Le Tigre -- are in the top five.
That's a good point -- I actually hadn't noticed that until now. It's been great to watch "Rebel Girl" climb up and tie (with "Boxcar.") Whenever these songs come on, it is like the whole room explodes.
From the benefit standpoint, how do you select the organizations that Punk Rock Karaoke works with?
On a tour it's been a little bit different -- we've been working within the networks and contacts that we have in each city. But when we're doing events in Chicago and the Northeast, we tend to choose groups that are, first of all, based in the community. They have some sort of specific tie-in to a neighborhood or area of the city. We focus on organizations that are working by their own bootstraps -- they don't have a ton of funding coming in from grants or any other foundational support. Smaller projects that don't get traditional sources of funding.
We don't raise millions of dollars or anything -- but we keep in touch with all of our organizations and ask, like, hey, what did you use the thousand bucks or whatever we were able to raise for? We did a fundraiser for a music program and they bought instruments, or a group may use the money to buy food for their own events.
Sometimes groups pitch to us and send us a letter explaining what they need the money for and why they like the project. The last fundraiser we did in New York was for the New York Abortion Access Fund -- and they are an entirely volunteer program. They have lots of different types of fundraisers, but they are really grassroots. Basically they gave us a really compelling pitch: the money that Punk Rock Karaoke raises for us would go directly for abortion services. That is the kind of impact we're looking for.
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Punk Rock Karaoke starts at 7 p.m. at the Denver Community Health Collective, 2727 West 27th Avenue; proceeds benefit the DCHC (suggested donation is $5 to $10). For more information, visit Punk Rock Karaoke's Facebook page for the Denver event.