Denver Band Iwakura Expands the Identity of Hardcore

Iwakura is definitely a hardcore band, but it’s changing the face of the genre, exemplifying an individual vision of what it’s like today. What sets Iwakura apart on first impression is that the act’s performances lack the tough-guy persona that many hardcore bands adopt, even for the purpose of mocking it.

“So much of [hardcore] has so much machismo, and there’s no room for women or [vulnerability],” says bassist Kat Plank.

“I think there’s very little room for people who don’t identify as male and straight, so I think that is a little bit of what comes through,” adds vocalist Rio Wolf, who identifies as transgender. “But I also never put any thought into, ‘I’m gonna be weird!’ We aren’t trying to push any sort of agenda — even if it’s a very positive agenda that I believe in a lot.”

One could draw parallels between Iwakura and bands like G.L.O.S.S. or Slouch, which are both grounded in overt identity politics, but that doesn’t reflect Iwakura’s particular aims.

“I love those bands a lot and that they exist,” says Wolf. “But I think it’s a different approach, and I don’t want it to be the reason people come to see us.”

“We want to avoid these things becoming points of fetishization,” explains guitarist Ian Ancelin. “We [also] don’t try to force the aesthetic. Some people into screamo call us a screamo band, hardcore dudes say we’re kind of a weird hardcore band, and metal people call us ‘powerviolence.’ What gets put on a flier doesn’t matter. We’re a hardcore band and we do hardcore music.”

The group’s approach to hardcore may be informed by the musicians’ insider-outsider perspectives. When the members of Iwakura came together in the fall of 2013, each was already a veteran of underground music in Colorado. Ancelin was a teen living in Parker when a friend gave him Black Flag’s classic 1981 album Damaged to listen to. Soon after, Ancelin connected with the local music world through influential DIY venue Monkey Mania and by playing in experimental grind band Crack Magick.

“I would go to as many Monkey Mania shows as I could, even if I didn’t know who was playing, because I knew that Josh [Taylor] and Amy [Fantastic] would always be open and welcoming,” recalls Ancelin. “I never felt too weird, despite my social anxiety at the time.”

Monkey Mania also provided Wolf and drummer Joe Linden with formative experiences in their teens. Through friends, Linden got to know the post-hardcore band Solar Bear, which took his first group, Autonym, under its wing. Wolf grew up feeling like the only punk in Boulder, and often went to Denver seeking music and community. After a particular show — A Circle Takes the Square at Monkey Mania — Wolf decided to start making music, eventually forming a band called So Yeah, We’re Werewolves.
Through that project, Wolf became friends with Solar Bear and toured with the band selling merch and doing lights. When Solar Bear went on hiatus, vocalist Marcus Tallitsch formed a new band, Orphans, which included both Linden and Wolf. 

The final piece of the puzzle was put in place when Orphans toured with Damaru, a band that included Ancelin. The claustrophobic atmosphere of ten people traveling in the same vehicle highlighted tensions within both groups, and after the tour ended, so did the bands. Linden and Ancelin ended up playing together, while Wolf started American Haiku. One day, Ancelin ran into Plank at Sweet Action Ice Cream and noticed that she was wearing an Orphans T-shirt. Ancelin reached out, and soon after, Iwakura was formed, with Wolf on vocals.

“I’d always wanted to play something way heavier than what I had done [before],” says Plank. “I wanted a way to express angry, sad or hopeless feelings."

“Life can be a very desperate and devastating thing,” agrees Ancelin. “One of the few ways that we can cope with the crushing devastation of daily life is to play aggressive music and yell about it.”

With Euth, Swells and Herse, 7 p.m. Saturday, May 14, donation, Juice Church, 34th and Lawrence streets, all ages.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.