Denver Hardcore: Q&A with Memphis of Fight Like Hell and Sox's Place

Hardcore is one of the purest forms of expression in music. More visceral than cerebral, the music is simple, direct and explosive. There’s no pretense or subtext -- nothing to analyze. And, refeshingly, its practioners and enthusiasts are generally as straight-forward and no-nonsense as the music, which means they’re unaffected by the trends and trappings of the industry. There’s no carrot to dangle here. The bands aren’t clamoring for press or stepping over each other for accolades. Instead, it’s all about the music and looking after one another – which couldn’t be any clearer, as evidenced by my recent conversation with Fight Like Hell’s drummer Memphis. The subject of my October 18 column, who’s band is at the center of Denver’s hardcore scene and who books Sox’s Place, Memphis talks about the genesis of Mile High hardcore and Sox’s Place, in addition to weighing in on FSU, the controversial East Coast hardcore crew, and discussing how Denver’s scene compares to other cities.

Westword: Can you tell me a little bit about the scene and how it got started?

Memphis: Basically, everything is pretty much based around Sox’s Place. We do anywhere between three-five shows a month. We used to have shows at a place called Garageland before that place got torn down. It was off 27th and Walnut, in kind of like a shitty area – which, I think now they’re condos, so maybe it’s not that shitty. But we did shows there for a while; we did some stuff at Climax Lounge, when it was called the Raven.

Pretty much, honestly, I think as far as Denver hardcore scene, we’re probably going on a decline right now. I think kids kind of get spoiled when a lot of stuff comes through. They start to become elitists, and less kids come out for every band; they come out just for the band they want to see, and the shows suffer as a whole. About a year and a half ago, we were pretty much peaked. It didn’t matter what show we did – there was kids there. It’s in a bit of decline, but everything works in cycles. So I’m sure it will work its way back up.

What are the main bands that anchor the scene right now?

Killing Kings. Crooked Ways, which Mark that does Foods, Friends and Hardcore with me at Sox’s Place, is in. Us [Fight Like Hell]. The Diehard Remain, which is an older straight-edge band. And Speak In Vowels and Fools Die, which are some younger bands. Pretty much is just based on, like, five or six bands right now. There’s other bands – Viper:Viper and any other bands we have at Sox’s place pretty much, keeping it alive in Denver.

So how did the whole scene come together?

Steve from Killing Kings was in a band called As We Speak before – actually, a lot of the members in Killing Kings were in As We Speak. I moved here when I was fourteen and started going to shows as soon as I got a license. So I started coming around. Steve was doing shows at the Raven at the time. We all started to hang out.

At the same time, Joey, who sings in Fight Like Hell, was in a band called Home of the Brave, and they were kind of on the skinhead/oi/hardcore scene. At that time, the skinhead and punk rock oi scene was a lot bigger in Denver than the hardcore scene was. And so, I kind of started hanging out with both crowds. And we all kind of got together and started doing more shows of punk bands and hardcore bands.

Then Garageland popped up and we started doing a lot of stuff there. And the more hardcore shows we did, the more kids came and the more punk kids turned into hardcore kids. Once we got Sox’s place was pretty much the time we were able to step it up and establish the hardcore scene, because we had a consistent venue that we could do shows at. Because, I mean, you can ask anyone across the country, it’s real hard to keep a unified hardcore scene without a unified venue, so we were lucky enough to get that.

So how long have you been doing shows there?

November 2003 is when we first started doing shows at Sox’s Place.

How did that come about?

Matt, who plays guitar in Fight Like Hell, had a friend he went to high school with – actually, his dad owns Sox’s Place. A lot of people probably don’t know about Sox’s Place. It’s a drop-in center for homeless kids during the day. It’s like a youth center. They basically house homeless street kids who have nowhere to go during the day; they give them food and a place to lay their head when they need it. And at night, we pretty much run the venue. But Jordan, who is Doyle, who runs Sox’s Place’s son, went to school with Matt and was like, “Hey, I’ve got a place my dad owns that has a stage, and you guys could do shows at an affordable price.” So we just kind of talked to him from there and figured it out, and we’ve been doing shows there ever since.

How many shows are you averaging?

I would say maybe three to five shows a month, depending. In the summer time, it gets kind of crazy. In July of last year, we had probably like ten shows. It just depends. A lot of bands try to come through in the summer time when everyone’s out of school. Generally, summer time is the busiest time. It just depends on who’s coming through.

How did you get plugged in with the national bands you’ve been booking?

My brother is in a band called Clenched Fist from Memphis. They did a lot of touring – they’ve been a band for about twelve years. They were touring six or seven years ago, when I was young, and I use to go out with them and met a lot of people. Then I started another band called In the Crosshairs here in Denver. We started doing a lot of out-of-town shows, and it was pretty much just kind of cashing in some favors from people that my older brother was friends with or that I had met along the way. Honestly, nobody really liked In the Crosshairs, but they really liked us as people. So they booked us out of town. And Fight Like Hell was kind of a side project at the time. Basically, things kind of fizzled out with In the Crosshairs, and we started doing Fight Like Hell, and people were a lot more receptive and actually wanted to see Fight Like Hell. We made a lot of connections through In the Crosshairs, so it was really easy to continue to do out of town shows pretty consistently.

So is that how you became a fan of hardcore, through your brother?

Yeah. He used to beat it into my head when I was about nine or ten years old, that that was what I was going to like, and it stuck.

When did you guys found Food, Friends and Hardcore. Can you tell me a little about that?

Yeah, in late 2004. Mark was living in New Mexico before that and had decided he was going to move up here. We had played New Mexico, and he had booked shows for us. So when he moved up here, he and I moved in together and started doing shows together. And we’ve pretty much been doing shows ever since.

We just wanted to provide kids with a place where they could see cool shows; they could see stuff they wanted to see. Sox’s Place is kind of the anti-venue of a lot of these surburban, wannabe youth group centers that open up.

For a kid who doesn’t really understand the hardcore scene, if they were to come to a show and see how the kids dance, flailing their arms and legs, do you think they’d get freaked out by that at all?

I don’t think kids get freaked out so much from the dancing as much as they get freaked out from who’s dancing. There’s other places in Denver where you can go see a hardcore show and kids will be doing that sort of thing – but there, you’re in a safe, surburban church, where there’s a bunch of security, so you feel like you don’t have anything to worry about. But when you walk into Sox’s Place and there’s a bunch of big guys swinging their arms around and you don’t see any security, and there’s a bunch of grafitti on the walls, and you might get harrassed by a bum if you go outside – I think that freaks people out a bit. But that’s kind of the appeal of Sox’s Place: It’s in downtown Denver. It’s in a place maybe where you don’t feel a hundred percent safe all the time. But you can ask pretty much anyone that grew up in hardcore – part of the appeal of growing up in it is that you’re not safe all the time.

But it’s really like smoke and mirrors. We’ve never had a fight at Sox’s Place; we’ve never had any problems. I think, honestly, that reputation kind of helps us as much as it hinders us. For every kid that’s afraid to come to Sox’s Place because he thinks that he’s going to get beat up, I think there’s one kid who’s kind of curious to see it. And the ones that are curious enough to come see it realize real fast that it’s not anything like they think it is, and they stick around.

And honestly, the atmosphere at Sox’s Place … when a newcomer is there, they’re welcome. There’s never a time when we make people feel unwelcome or like they’re not wanted there. If a young kid has the guts to come down and check it out, they probably need something like that in their life.

The shows at Sox’s Place are ten to twelve bucks on average, right?

I would say seven to twelve, depending. Honestly, we hate charging ten to twelve bucks for a show, but with gas being so expensive, we’ve gotta take care of the bands coming through. If it’s a local show it’s about seven bucks. It just depends. Like I said, it depends on the band and how many bands. As much as we hate taking ten dollars out of a kids pocket, I don’t want to leave a band with ten dollars to go drive eight hours with.

What are some of the bigger bands that you’ve had there?

We had Ringworm, who is on Victory Records. Warrior, who’s also on Victory Records. Pretty much bigger hardcore acts. But really, we haven’t done anything big. We’ve worked with Soda Jerk a little bit, and he pretty much does the bigger stuff. We try to keep it as DIY as possible. It just seems to give off a better vibe that way. Not saying we wouldn’t book a bigger band, but they generally need more access to bigger sound equipment, security – that sort of thing. I would say the Warriors and Ringworm are the biggest bands we’ve worked with.

Is the scene is self-sustaining? Is the money that you make going back into booking bands and that sort of thing?

Yeah, pretty much. Any money made is going back into new cables, fliers, paying the sound guy, booking more shows, having some money set aside so that if a show bombs we can still pay the bands.

Is the sound system a house system or is it something that you have to haul in for every show?

That was actually donated to Sox’s Place. Various groups will donate stuff to Sox’s Place. All that stuff was donated. We buy cords and mikes and that sort of thing. But all the people at Sox’s Place give us a lot of help. They built the stage; they put up the lights. They really take pride in giving us a quality place to have shows.

What’s the most memorable show you’ve had there so far?

In January 2006, we had Ramallah and Death Before Dishonor. It was the first Fight Like Hell show before we actually went out on tour. We were going out and doing six weeks. So it was a big moment for everyone in Denver. It was a just big thing for a Sox’s Place band to be going out and doing national things. There was like 250 kids at the show. It was completely insane. If I were to remember one show at Sox’s Place that would be it.

So you guys went out and did six weeks. How did the scene, when you guys went to other towns, compare?

It just depends on where you are. Honestly, I think smaller towns we play are always better for us. It seems like kids in smaller towns are starving for bands and stuff to do because their town’s are kind of boring. We go to big towns and it’s the same problem we have here -- kids get spoiled and they don’t want to come support every show. But when you’re in a small town, kids want to support something because they don’t have anything. The West Coast, in general, is really good to us, but we tour there so often, it’s kind of hard for it not to be good to us. The East Coast is a completely different story. The history of hardcore and how long it’s been around there, it’s almost damn near impossible to get the kids to come check out a band they’ve never heard before. Whereas the West Coast there’s still a lot of new kids. And also, the West Coast doesn’t have nearly a big of a problem keeping open venues as the East Coast does.

How does the vibe compare? I know the East Coast has FSU and a reputation that precedes them. What’s the West Coast like in comparison?

Honestly, we get a warm welcome no matter if it’s East Coast or West Coast. We’ve made friends with a lot of people around the country. We’ve pretty much consistently toured since the beginning of 2006. I would say that on the West Coast, it seems like kids are a little more open to what you’re doing. As far as the East Coast goes, it’s like pulling teeth to get people to come to shows. I think once they get there, though, they’re more open minded. But the problem is actually getting them there.

It’s a harder crowd to get to. But honestly, we’ve played bigger shows on the East Coast and nothing compares to how crazy they are. We played this hardcore fest in Philadelphia this year. It’s pretty much the fest that happens since Hell Fest isn’t happening this year. I couldn’t ask for a better vibe at a show. Philly and the East Coast get a bad rap for having, you know, FSU or whatever. But I can’t honestly say their was eight hundred people at that show, and I didn’t see anything resembling a fight.

So has it [the whole FSU thing] been overblown by the press, a couple news items that have been blown out of proportion?

I think so. We’ve made friends with a lot of those guys, and I can honestly say, those have been the truest guys, in terms of helping us out, than anyone. You’ll have some sixteen-seventeen year-old-kid that will say he’ll help you out for a show and it’ll never happen. But then there’s dudes that you read about in Rolling Stone – or whatever other magazine decides to print some story about a gang – they’ll do whatever they can to make sure you have a show and a place to stay in their city. I mean, I see it from a different point of view than a lot of other people see. But a lot of the time, the guys that kind of get the bad rap are the guys that always look out.

What’s your point of view based on?

As far as how much we tour and how much we do, like I said, those people seem to look out for us more than anybody else does. A lot of those dudes were in older hardcore bands. They know what it’s like to tour and sleep in your van and stuff. So they do everything in their power to get it done. As much trash as people talk about them being a gang or violence in hardcore and stuff like that -- I’ve played tons of East Coast shows and I’ve never once seen an incident like that.

How does that compare to our scene? Is our scene completely different here?

Our scene, we don’t have the presence of that sort of thing here [an organized FSU type of crew]. And honestly, I’ve never seen it as a problem. A lot of those guys, the only reason they’re around and they get a bad rap is because they’re protecting the people around them. I don’t see it as them beating up innocent kids or anything at shows. I see it more as protecting what’s theirs’ and what they’ve built – the same way we would. It’s the same as if someone came into Sox’s Place and disrepected the people there or disrepected what we do, we’d have to do something about it. Not saying it would be violent, but, I mean, anyone’s going to protect something they worked for.

Does Sox’s Place have a reputation across the country? Do hardcore bands seek you out?

Yeah, like I said, in this day and age, a lot of kids will promise you a show and then back out on it. I think since we’ve been doing shows we’ve just kind of gained a reputation as a solid place to play in the Midwest. The Midwest is hard area, you know? Obviously the coasts are going to be better. There’s a lot more people and everything’s a lot closer. But you can talk to a number of touring bands, and they would tell you that Denver is the place to play between California and Chicago, which we take a lot of pride in. Denver’s a big city, but it’s eight hours from everything. We work real hard to keep a consistent good image. So we try to pay them well and make sure they fed and everything.

How many dates are you guys doing when you’re on the road?

I would say at least 120.

How long are the stints when you do go out?

Depends. Probably the shortest thing we do – it’s hard to do weekends or a week, just because where we live. I mean, the closest thing is Salt Lake, which is seven hours. Kansas City is nine hours. Albuquerque is six hours. So it’s hard to get a weekend done like they can on the coast. They can go out for the weekend and hit three different major cities, and we can’t do that. So I’d say the shortest thing we go on is two or three weeks. If we’re going to drive all the way to the West Coast, we might as well do the entire West Coast.

Do you guys play anywhere else beside Sox’s Place when you’re in town?

We play the Marquis from time to time, whenever Soda Jerk has a show that he throws us on. We’re playing Sick of It All on Wednesday. We like playing other places, but with me booking at Sox’s Place, it’s really easy for us to get on shows there. At the same time, a lot of bands coming through are bands that helped us out on tour and played our show and made sure there was a good local draw there. So a lot of times we feel like it’s our obligation to return the favor when we’re home, to, you know, play their show and make sure there’s a good local draw, so people see their band.

Have you guys had any thoughts about moving into the bar scene or is are you more focused on all ages?

All ages shows are pretty much what Fight Like Hell will always do. I’m not opposed to bar shows, but I don’t see – the dedication we get from younger kids is what makes Fight Like Hell be. I can play to a million drunk guys and the chances of them remembering the band’s name at the end of the night are not very good.

What about branching out and putting together your own shows at, like, the Bluebird or Gothic: Does it take something away from it by not being at Sox’s?

Honestly, part of it is that it’s easy for us to book at Sox’s. Pretty much, if we need the date, as long as it’s not filled with something else they’re doing there at night, which is rare, then we have it. So booking Sox’s is easier. Not to mention, Two hundred kids at Sox’s Place is impressive. Two hundred kids in the Bluebird is not impressive. So it takes away from the vibe. When you have two hundred kids going nuts in a place that holds two hundred kids, it’s a lot more fun for the bands and a lot more fun for the kids. If you have two hundred kids inside a venue that holds a thousand, it’s like an empty room.

So what are your aspirations in terms of the band? Are you guys just having fun playing music or…?

You know, honestly, we try to focus on the business part of our band and we’ll have band meetings about it and stuff, but we pretty much just want to tour and hang out and play for kids. I would say as a whole, our band doesn’t have aspirations to get huge and open up for whatever big rock band is around. If I were to cite a goal for the band, it would be to play shows consistently and not starve – that would be a great goal for Fight Like Hell.

So are you striving to be at the level of a Victory band or maybe even eventually at the level of a band like Sick of It All?

Not really. A lot of the places we play on tour are very similar to Sox’s Place, and that’s kind of the vibe we like, an underground vibe, where we’re playing for the kids and you can tell that it means something to them. I’ve been on a tour with another band, with a bigger rock band and it’s just not the same. It’s just too business [oriented]. I’m sure if we put our minds to it and we focused on it, we could get to that point. I just don’t think any of us want to be.

Right. So you’re happy at the level that it’s at right now.

Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to get fed every night, but we’re not the kind of band that’s going to sweat anybody over money or food or anything like that. We just want to play shows for kids.

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera