DIY Collective Mouth Bomb Lives On

The fourth annual Mile High Festibowl took place in April across three venues in central Denver. The festival featured more than sixty bands and over twenty visual artists, and its success was remarkable for several reasons, starting with the fact that the Mouth Bomb collective behind it lost its home base very suddenly in late 2013. Mouth Bomb started five years ago, when a handful of like-minded Coloradans got together to help musicians in whatever way they could. “The idea was to help people expose their music without them having to pay anything and without us making any money,” says founding member Patrick Sutton.

The group formed a base of operations in a house at 29th and California streets in Five Points and called it Mouth House. It had been the Pitchfork House, where many folk-punk shows had taken place in the first decade of the 2000s. For three and a half years, Mouth House was a place where you could go and feel welcome. The sheer variety of music you could hear there reflected not only the varied tastes of the people who lived at the house, but also an ethos that included cooperation and an openness to new ideas.

“We wanted to try something crazy, and it ended up being people doing various things better than others,” says Sutton. “Some people were better with recording; I was better about putting on shows and festivals. The goal for Mouth House was to bring the whole idea of Mouth Bomb into a community that could make anything possible for all the artists. I don’t know if we achieved that or not, but that’s what we were trying for.”

Sutton and most of his fellow Mouth Bomb co-founders grew up in Elizabeth. They all got into punk rock in their youth and started bands right out of high school. Clay DeHaan and Sam Tallent (two other Mouth Bomb members) started the post-punk band Red Vs. Black. Sutton, as a member of Sparkler Bombs, went on his first two tours with Red Vs. Black, and it was that experience that informed the ethic and operational model of Mouth Bomb.

During its run, Mouth House partnered with other DIY venues and more conventional small venues to make Denver an easy stop for touring bands on the underground circuit. So if Mouth House couldn’t accommodate a date, it could network with Seventh Circle Music Collective, Rhinoceropolis, Glob or Carioca Cafe (aka Bar Bar).

“You meet [Seventh Circle Founder] Aaron Saye and you don’t want to not hang out with him,” says Sutton. “It’s not about the competition; it’s about helping. We didn’t want to not be able to help a band out because we were overbooking. The goal was to build a strong community.”

Mouth House did just that, hosting punk, folk, noise, psychedelic rock, hip-hop and impossible-to-pigeonhole music and art for the duration of its existence. The building wasn’t really up to code and some guests occasionally caused a ruckus, but for a time no one interfered.

“I remember one time this girl lit a chair on fire and was pushing it around for photos for Instagram or something, and we were like, ‘Oh, my God!’” says Sutton. “The cops rolled by and said, ‘Do you guys got that?’ They didn’t even get out.... We were in a weird, lucky spot for a minute.”
That minute ended last October.

“The last Halloween festival we threw, the Haunted Houth, [undercover Denver police officers] came in with Dropkick Murphys T-shirts and gave fake donations, and someone must have said at the door, ‘Pay for a cup,’” remembers Sutton. “Then Vice came in over fences and in every entrance. They didn’t let anyone leave, and they charged a couple of us with selling alcohol without a license. They tore the house apart. Before that, we never got touched, and they didn’t even question us. I think they just wanted to bust us for a long time. Every 4/20, we had a three-day festival with a bouncy castle. All of our neighbors came over, so they were aware of what we were doing and they were cool with it. It’s Five Points, so we were cool with each other.”

Sutton had already moved out of Mouth House to focus on his schoolwork when the raid happened, but the remaining inhabitants were forced to relocate with a week’s notice. That experience may have changed some people forever in terms of wanting to be involved in such endeavors again. But Mouth Bomb Records remains, the people of Mouth House remain in active bands, and Sam Tallent tours the nation as a successful underground comedian.

For the most recent edition of Festibowl, Mouth Bomb member Richard Ingersoll coordinated the extensive visual-art side, and Sutton was largely responsible for pulling together the musical acts, including legendary surf/punk/performance-art band Daikaiju, which headlined Friday and Saturday at the Armoury. Sutton would like to see the festival get even bigger in the future, and he wants to keep it free for as long as that’s feasible. (Neither he nor any of his volunteers benefits monetarily from the event.) With so much work involved, one has to wonder what keeps Sutton motivated, not just to keep Mouth Bomb a going concern as a label, but also to assemble and promote the festival.

“I’m OCD, and I can’t watch anything and not want to do it,” explains Sutton. “It’s what I breathe. The first time I sat down and played the drums, I felt that way. The first 4/20 festival and there’s 500 people in the house. The first time you paid a touring band two hundred bucks and you remember the first time you made two hundred bucks for a show on tour in another state. That’s always the thing that drives me. I want to be able to travel with my band to Asia, and I want bands from Asia to travel to Denver. That’s what keeps me motivated to do it, for sure.”
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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.