High Plains Underground Archive

Notes From the American Underground Music Scene: Part Two

In October 2014, Denver-based industrial/avant-garde band Echo Beds embarked on a tour of the American Midwest. Without a booking agent — working instead with friends and friends of friends — members Keith Curts and Tom Nelsen were able to put together a resoundingly successful tour that paid for itself. But the real reward came in connecting with like-minded musicians from the central portion of the United States and tapping into the rich, new underground music world that has been brewing for the past several years. It was a significant experience for both Echo Beds and the crowds that saw the band, often on the advice of people like Benjamin Jones, an old friend of Curts and Nelsen’s and the charismatic singer and guitarist for Minneapolis-based band Funeral and the Twilight. Jones has forged bonds with musicians across the country during tours with his own projects, helping to establish a creative community far beyond the bounds of his home town.

Curts and Nelsen have built something similar. They started out by putting together shows in Denver, bringing like-minded people in at this early stage of what promises to be an exciting new period for the American underground music scene.

When Echo Beds booked its tour, Curts and Nelsen asked me to come along to witness and possibly document the experience. As a freelance writer, my work is fairly portable, and I was able to put together the appropriate funds to pay my own way. Beyond that, it was my pleasure to get to travel with people like Curts and Nelsen. We all knew there would be discomfort along the way — sleeping on couches and floors, enduring long drives — but the adventure of getting to experience things you can’t at home has a strong allure. And for my trouble, I got to see once-in-a-lifetime performances and discovered some of the most interesting and inspiring DIY spaces out there.

What follows are some highlights from the second half of the tour — you'll find notes from the first few days here. 

Thursday | October 23rd, 2014 | Chicago, Illinois: Going into Illinois, we had to pass through the largest truck stop in the United States, equipped with full showers, a laundromat, and what seemed to be a kind of mini-mall where you could get stuff you will likely never find at even a big truck stop in Colorado or much of anywhere else.

Chicago's seemingly endless metropolitan area made Denver's impressive sprawl seem small by comparison. The venue where Echo Beds was to play was a few blocks from the former location of the notorious Cabrini Green housing project.

The street on which the Bijou Theater was located seemed like something out of a movie about New York. Before arriving, I'd heard that the Bijou used to be a porno theater and thought, "Heck, that's what the Bluebird was when I was growing up." But, no: It's currently the Bijou Theater and Sex Club. When we rolled in, after a kind of grilling by the guy manning the ticket window, there was a gay porno film being projected onto the screen of a small, seated theater, which smelled of a backed-up sewer. After we loaded in a bit of gear, the projection had switched to some previews that looked as appealing to us three heterosexual guys as the earlier film. But not everything in life has to be for you. We later found out that the sex-club part was not a "former," either; we just happened to be there on a night when the focus was on the variety show. One customer left because there was no one to play with upstairs in the dungeon or elsewhere. Sorry, guy.

The variety show included a few musical projects as well as unusual films and a bevy of performance-art pieces, including an S&M performance in the dungeon upstairs, a woman cleaning a glory hole, another woman showing whether or not a woman urinates as she ejaculates. We skipped out on the last performance to load out. One thing's for certain: You never forget an experience like that. The people running the venue were nice, and host Jail Flanagan let us stay at her place, a house sandwiched between apartment buildings, after we ate at a nearby diner with the worst customer service I have ever experienced.

Saturday | October 25, 2014 | Minneapolis, Minnesota: The drive to Minneapolis was a little longer, but didn't seem to take much time at all as we drove through a scenic stretch of Wisconsin. We arrived at the Hexagon Bar early in the evening, in time for Terma Fest, a festival of dark pop, industrial music and noise organized in part by Benjamin Jones. The lineup included Principality, Dream Weapon, the Funeral and the Twilight, Human Traffic, Echo Beds and Prostate, but there was no filler, with every band seemingly having an especially good night. The sheer enthusiasm of the Minneapolis crowd, especially for Echo Beds, a band most of the people had never seen before, was inspiring and heartwarming in a way that I haven't often seen in Denver lately.

In the morning we had breakfast at the house where the Funeral and the Twilight lived and then went to check out a nearby park with Human Traffic before the trio headed off to play a gig in another city. Then we went downtown to check out the legendary venue First Avenue and 7th Street Entry. First Avenue was where the live performances from Purple Rain were filmed. While out and about, we learned about a very rare opportunity to see genius electronic artist Ryoji Ikeda perform "Superposition" at the Walker Art Center, and we gladly went, because you don't see someone like that in Denver much, if at all. It was an assault on the senses and represented some of the most complex audio and visual programming you'll see at a show

Following that, Echo Beds had its second show in Minneapolis at something of a secret basement DIY venue called The Shitbiscuit. Apparently, word had gotten out, and it was a very well-attended show, with just as enthusiastic of a crowd as the one from the previous night. This show also included great dream-pop and minimal-synth bands Oaks and Claps. They were the kinds of bands that, if they lived in Denver, I would go to see as often as possible. 

Sunday | October 26, 2014 | Sioux Falls, South Dakota: After the hospitality and friendliness of Minneapolis, I kind of wanted to stay. There's something about that town that felt like people were motivated to make their own fun and to be accepting of diversity in the music, where even bands playing similar styles sounded nothing alike. But on we went to Vermillion, South Dakota, to meet up with Duncan Barlow. It was a short drive to where Echo Beds would play that night in Sioux Falls, and a good opportunity to visit with an old friend. Barlow is an English professor at the college in Vermillion and bit of a musical legend in his own right. He was part of the hardcore scene in Kentucky in the '80s and '90s and a member of the bands D. Biddle and Lion Sized in Denver before he moved on to pursue his career in academia.

The Sioux Falls show was at a great record store called Total Drag. What it lacked in size, it made up for much more in terms of the quality of content, as well as its role as a hub for small shows that in a bigger city would be in a DIY space. I found more records I wanted than I could possibly afford. But I indulged in a vinyl copy of the Laughing Hyenas classic Life of Crime. Owners Liz McGreevy Nissen and Dan Nissen were gracious hosts, and their good taste informed the setup of the store, the stock and even T-shirts bearing the designs of local artists. Both of them had also been steeped in the DIY scene in Sioux Falls, around the 605 House, and currently put on shows to fill the gap left by those spaces going away in the most recent decade. Dan also often toured through Denver as a member of Examination of the... and was friendly with the guys in Planes Mistaken for Stars.

Monday | October 25, 2014 | Omaha, Nebraska: We left Duncan Barlow's house in the afternoon after attempting to diagnose a problem with Keith Curts's bass rig, which had failed during the Shitbiscuit show in Minneapolis. With only one more show on the tour, Curts made do.

We arrived in Omaha in the evening and found our way to a DIY space called West Wing. It's part of a larger building that once housed the early incarnation of Saddle Creek Records. We were told that none of the people affiliated with that label come around to West Wing these days. Like many DIY spaces, West Wing was a little grimy, but the people involved were also remarkably welcoming and friendly, and we quickly realized we shared a similar DIY ethos no matter the type of music we play or the city we come from. Cold Blooded Satanists was a duo that included the guy who set up the show; he goes by the name Rocha, and the set was like seeing something part noise, part tribal and part grindcore — which contrasted with the experimental-dance music of Ruby Block. Echo Beds closed out the night.

Afterward, we got to talking with a number of people who either made it to the show as musicians or as aficionados of challenging music, and it seemed obvious that despite distance, differences in specific culture and origins, that there is a unifying spirit that has re-emerged or reasserted itself in the American underground. Going on that Echo Beds tour was clear and present proof that we are in for great new era of American music. That realization made the eight-hour drive home through the night bearable.

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.