Ethan McCarthy of Aqualung's Community Music Space talks about running a DIY space

Aqualung's Music Community Space is closing its doors. The north Denver DIY space is hosting its final show this Friday night, with Deceased, Gravehill, 666 Pack, Glutgnar and 3BA. Aqualung's was started by Ethan McCarthy following his departure from Blast-O-Mat just before the fall. After an arduous summer, part of which was spent on a tour that ended abruptly thanks to vehicle disaster, McCarthy reached burnout mode from booking and running sound at the long-running DIY space, and determined it was time to move on and start something new.

See also: - Aaron Saye of Seventh Circle Music Collective on transitioning from Blast-O-Mat - Brandton Manshel of GNU on the struggles of keeping a DIY space going in Ft Collins - Pete Bell's Rhinoceropolis doc offers insightful look at Denver's underground

After six months of shows, Aqualung's has reached the end of its run because the owner of the building that houses it has decided to expand his business operations. While this spells the end of Aqualung's, it's not likely to be the last of McCarthy's venue endeavors. We had a chance to speak with the always-engaging, observant and thoughtful McCarthy about the transition out of Blast-O-Mat, the frustrations and joys of running a DIY space, and last summer's disastrous tour.

Westword: Tell us about some of the misconceptions people may have had about why you stopped running Blast-O-Mat and about running a DIY space like that in general?

Ethan McCarthy: From an outsider's perspective, some people have no idea what it's like trying to run a place with a bunch of other people and their opinions and try to get along and make everybody happy and keep people around. Because no one is getting paid; everyone was donating their time. All that money just went to the rent on that building. We very rarely, especially the last two years that I was there, made the full amount of rent.

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Which is why I stepped in to pay the rest to make sure the place was around. Unless you were there doing that with us, you have no idea. Everybody has all sorts of opinions about this shit, and they don't know anything about it. Aaron [Saye] presented his perspective on a lot of that stuff. And I feel like if you don't know, it makes everybody look like a bunch of dicks, kind of.

He certainly didn't intend for it to come off that way.

No, no. I actually got an e-mail from Aaron. which was cool of him, and we're cool. I'm not mad at him or anything. It was just weird seeing all your dirty laundry aired in the paper, all this shit that I thought no one would ever hear. I'm not mad at anybody for any of it. I think Aaron should have been more cautious about what he said if he didn't want it to get printed, even if it was a casual conversation. But if it was, and he didn't want anyone to know about, he shouldn't have said anything. So he apologized to me for things he said, but he still said it, but that's okay. Because I've been in that situation before where you say some shit and it gets printed, and you're like, "Oh, whoops." But it's okay. I've been there, so I'm not holding it against anybody.

Long-term, it's not going to be a big deal.

No, man, but the Blast-O-Mat is such a sensitive issue. The last two years I've been there, but even before that, I was going there and participating. It has gone through so many changes and so many different people and so much stuff. When I was living at Monkey Mania or Kingdom of Doom or whatever, they were doing shows there, too.

And we were like partners helping each other out and all this shit. When they got shut down the first time, I took on all their shows. When I got shut down, they took on all my shows, and we took care of each other. So I have this long history with all of the people in that building. I do want to say that every place I've lived has had its own stigma, I guess, and Blast-O-Mat had the biggest one.

A lot of people had shitty things to say and never appreciated the time and effort that all of those people put into that building, and that fucking sucks because it's been around for so long and it's hosted so many bands and so many people. That part in Aaron's article where that guy said he never felt welcome because he wasn't some crust punk or some shit like that? I'm like, "Dude, fuck you," because so many different types of people went there, and there were so many different kinds of shows.

Aaron says in the article that I hate ska and shit, and yeah, okay, fuck it, I do hate ska, but that doesn't mean I won't let you play in my house. I'm open to anything. That's the other thing. People don't ever see that. They're just like, "Oh, well, if you're not fucking into grindcore, they hate you." What are you talking about?

It never felt like that to me.

Right. I have plenty of friends who are not into punk or metal or any of that shit, and they're cool. They never had any problems coming there. I read that, and I'm like, "All right, I'm sorry you felt that way, but I don't understand why."

It's like the Rhinoceropolis phenomenon, where some people didn't feel like they were cool enough to go there. But no one there cares if you're cool enough or not.

I've read that, too, with Rhino, and I'm like, "What?! No one gives a shit." Whenever I go to a show there, it's like all different walks of life at that place, which is super-cool. I like the old owners. I like the new people. I think that place is cool as hell.

So a lot of that comes down to a misunderstanding of one kind or another.

People misunderstand it. From the perspective of a lot of the people that I talked to, that have volunteered there, and people I've known and all of that, it's always been this thankless job where everyone complains about everything that goes on there, and everyone has an opinion. But until you have donated hours, months, years of your time and your money into a venue like that, you don't know shit.

So, what, you may have come one night and someone may have been in a bad mood and taken your money, or been mad at you because you showed up with fifty cents to a show and they gave you a hard time? Would you go to the Marquis Theater with fifty cents? Larimer Lounge? Any of these places? The fuck you would not. Because it's a DIY venue, you think that you can just show up and abuse people. Well that starts to wear on you.

After, like, five years of that shit, it will wear on your patience. People show up with beer, but they don't have any money to get into a show. Then they talk about how everyone treats them like shit. Well, maybe you shouldn't be a dick. It drives me nuts. I don't want to get so mad about it, because this is the community I live in and I still do shows at Aqualung's for these people -- myself also, but for everybody. I let everybody in, and I'm all cool with everybody, but that stuff will test your patience.

I've never once in my life walked to a door at any place that does shows and been like, "Oh, what? Do I have to pay? Here's a dollar." I'm like, "How much is it? Cool, here's some money." People also complain about five dollars. I'm sorry, but I don't think it's still 1982, where it should be a three-dollar show. Even seven dollars these days is a reasonable price for a show. I remember when Soda Jerk used to be seven dollars, and now their shit is up to fifteen. Metal shows a few years ago used to be seven bucks, but it's gone through the roof now.

I'll clarify that: When people come with no money, I'll let them in anyway. I may give them a little bit of shit, but I will always let people in. I never fucking turn people away unless you're one of these cats that comes to every single show with the same excuse all the time. I want bodies in there to watch bands, and I want people to be exposed to these bands. If they're playing at my place, they're usually not the biggest deal, but that's not always the case. You know what I mean.

You gotta pay them. You want people to see them. You want the bands to have good shows in Denver every time they come through, and that they get better each time. So I let everybody in. At Blast-O-Mat, I was booking most of the shows. Aaron was booking his type of stuff, and I was booking pretty much everybody else. Even if I didn't like it, people would hit me up and I would always do it. When you have all that stress and you have to worry about the money, too, not only for the bands but for the rent, that stuff sucks when people [don't donate].

Also, there's another aspect of running a DIY venue, and some people think it's their party place and trash it when they're there. As if there's someone paid to clean up later.

Nobody thinks about the cleanup. Nobody thinks about when your ass falls down because you're drunk, or you get punched in the nose and you're bleeding everywhere, and you walk through the whole house, dripping blood all over the place, all over the bathroom, all over my toilet that fifty other people used that night. Did you know that after you leave, if I have to use the toilet, I'm going to have to clean your blood off my toilet first before I can use my own bathroom? That shit night after night after night will make you irritated.

I understand that's part of [being involved in running a DIY venue], but I would just appreciate if people got that. If I got punched and bled all over Rhinoceropolis's bathroom, you had better believe I'd be cleaning up my own blood, because I'd be like, "No one that lives here should have to do this."

But people just break beer bottles, rearrange your shit, dirty everything up, and then it's all your responsibility to clean it up. No one thinks about that. It's just a prepared environment for everyone all the time. And that's just how it is all the time, I guess. And no money. At Blast-O-Mat, all the people that helped out, none of us are getting paid.

At Aqualung's, it's a cheaper space, it's easier to afford, so I guess it's not as bad because Blast-O-Mat was expensive. I've had a few shows since I've been there where I had to give every single dime to the bands, but it's not stressing me out, because I'm going to make my rent because I have a job right now, and everything's okay.

At Blast-O-Mat, when I had to fork over every single dime to the band, I'm sitting here thinking, "If the one after that doesn't do anything, we're fucked. What are we going to do?" It was like that at Monkey Mania, too. That same kind of hardcore rent stress because you're opening your place up to the community. I paid more [in rent] than [many] people pay for a mortgage.

The only reason I left Blast-O-Mat and cut down to just me is that the volunteers were getting burned out. They didn't want to come and do shows, which I get. They're not getting paid. It's only a collective space when it doesn't involve hardship or money. It kind of stops being a collective space when no one wants to come. It's like, "Oh, Ethan, you live in the basement. It's your fuckin' problem."

That's how I was feeling at the end there. Everyone was really burned out. I understand their side of it. I was the one that was like, "Oh, hey, kids, I'm going to move in, I'm going to take over the lease, and I'm going to do all of this shit." I took on that responsibility, but I had the idea that the twelve other people who volunteered could help out twice a month. It was me and three other people sometimes. Sometimes nobody at all, but I wasn't going to cancel those shows. I did a bunch of shows, left for tour, came back, did some more shows, toured again with a different band, and then had shows all up until my first day of work.

Everybody else was just hanging with their friends and doing their thing, so I said, "Fuck this." I called a meeting and said, "I love you guys, man. But I can't do this shit anymore. Because it is making me hate shows. It is making me hate you. It is making me miserable." I was stretched so fucking thin because I also had all this other stuff happen on tour, too.

Something broke down on tour, right?

Yeah, we had a wheel pop off the back of our van, and it flew thirty feet in the air and lit a field on fire and lit our van on fire right by the gas tank. It's actually a miracle that we didn't flip the van. J.P. [Damron] was driving, and I was asleep in the back. I looked out the window, and I see this flaming tire in the air and thought, "Oh, my God! We're going to die!" Zach [Harlon] turned around and looked at me, and I looked at him like, "Is this it?" We were so lucky. It was nuts. It was worse than having a blowout.

That happens, and it ends our tour, and I have to beg for money from people on the Internet -- people that like our music to buy merch, so that we can get home. I'm calling all my friends and family, and insurance isn't covering shit because it's a mechanical failure. If we had run into something, it would have been covered.

All that happens, I come home and I have all this stress from the shows, and I looked at my girlfriend and said, "I have got to change my life. I have got to do something or I am going to be fucking miserable." I love music, it's my thing, and I'm sitting here hating it. That's not good. It's all I know, and if I start to hate it, what am I going to do? I told everybody, and no one was going to step up, and I thought that place was going to go down. There was one dude that I'd hoped would do it, but he's young, and he couldn't do it. So Aaron said he would do it.

Just like it said in his interview, I was like, "Why now, guy? Why now do you want to bear the burden of this place when I really needed help from everybody and it really would have helped." I was initially bitter about that. That part of the interview -- though it makes me seem like a huge dick -- that's exactly what I said to him, and that's exactly how I felt, because I was burned out, and very few of those people came to my rescue when I needed it.

Some of the collective members were like, "No. Not Aaron." They were not having it because it's a collective now, because everybody has to decide where it's going. I decided, finally, setting all my baggage and shit aside, okay, for practical reasons, Aaron Saye should be the person because he's responsible. He has a drive for it. Everybody knows him, and mostly because he really has his shit together.

And it's better for me to just say, "All right," then give him the keys and let him go forward and do his thing than being a fucking curmudgeon about it, because that's fucked up. Some people wanted me to say that to him and do that to him, and I thought, "No, that's terrible. I'm not going to do that." I told him, "Al lright, you're in." I've tried to help him out and stay cool with him and have a camaraderie between the two places, because that's a good way to be. I don't want to be a dick.

Also, it's good for Denver to have more spots like this. There's a shitload of bars -- why don't we just have a bunch of underground places? That's sick! That's a sweet idea. That's the other thing about people hating on Blast-O-Mat, Rhino, or anywhere that has DIY shows -- man, there are places in this country and other countries where they don't get away with this shit. There are states that I go where they're like, "What? Oh, we could never get away with that shit." A band from Australia played here and said, "We don't do this in Australia. I've never played a show like this, because we can't do it there."

We're so lucky to have these places. There's plenty of places in this city where I go and I get treated like shit, but I keep going back because I'm not there to make friends with the staff; I'm there to see a band. If I go to the Marquis Theater, do you think the person at the ticket booth is nice every time I go? Hell, no. I'm not saying we should be allowed to be dicks to everybody, but a lot of people throw you under the bus if you're a DIY venue and you're rude to someone one time. Not even necessarily me, at Blast-O-Mat -- it could have been any of us that pissed somebody off one time. When I read about that in Aaron's interview, two sides of me looked at that, and one went, "Oh, come on, motherfucker."

The other side was like, "Hey, guy..." If I would have been aware someone felt that way, I would have taken them under my wing and showed them around and been like, "Hey man, it's cool. You're cool here. You're more than welcome to be here." But they don't do that. They just want to go home and be mad. Do you think we hate everybody so much that we do shows all the time? It's a thankless job. Until you've opened your home up completely to hundreds upon thousands of strangers -- for years, in every house you've lived in through your twenties or even younger -- you don't know what it's like.

I have the utmost respect for the other people who do this shit in the city. I always make sure to be cool with those guys, because, fucker, I know what it's like. That's why I love John Gross. I'm so happy about him being at Rhino, because he's a stand-up, solid dude. I see this shit on the Internet that people say about Rhino, and I'm like, "Aw, man, you're a dick. Fucking give him a break."

Some people also complain about them never writing back.

You know what, though? We have hundreds of e-mails coming in during a week. At the lowest amount in a week, I have 25 e-mails. During the busy touring seasons, you're buried. So I'm sorry if you were ignored, but the squeaky wheel gets the fucking grease, so you should just keep e-mailing me until I tell you, "No, I don't like this. I will never do it." Or until I say, "Okay, guy, I'm so sorry we ignored you for so long." Or come to a show and find someone specifically and say, "Hey, man, I've been trying to e-mail you guys." But people don't want to do that; they're lazy and say, "Oh, they didn't e-mail me once; they're dicks."

Indeed. Plenty of people complain about places like that and pretty much never go. I've personally written to bars and venues and not been contacted back. So I don't see that as any different. Maybe some people are spoiled and have a good working relationship with a certain venue and I don't, but I don't take it personally. You get upset, but if you realize what they're dealing with day in and day out, you can't hold a grudge.

Right. Because I play in bands I know the other side of it, and I've walked in their shoes. There's a promoter in town that has shows that I try to get my bands on all the time, and they ignore me. I've played in Denver for like thirteen years, and that shit can get to you. But I keep asking and I keep trying, because sometimes it works. I either get turned down, or they don't answer me 75 percent of the time. The other 25 percent does work out.

If you want to play somewhere so bad and you want to be a part of it so bad, then you just kind of keep going. The thing about DIY venues that a lot of people don't realize is that you can come up to me and say, "Hey, my name is so and so, and you're Ethan, right? This is my band." You can come up and talk to me and actually get things done, and you can actually get things done if you go on a face-to-face basis. But bigger promoters? That's not an option. You have to make a phone call or send an e-mail. You can't just show up to these places and introduce yourself.

I'm am not trying to slam bigger venues or bigger promoters at all; I'm just explaining the differences. If you're only coming to one show every six months, you're not going to stand out to me. If you're coming to shows all the time and you're all about this place, I'm going to get to know you. I'm going to know your name. I'm going to get know your band, and I'm going to get to know what you do. That's the cool thing about it: meeting like-minded people.

Did you name it Aqualung's Community Music Space?

I did. I liked it because I have asthma, and it's like, "Shitty Lung's." Basically I really like Jethro Tull and I have asthma.

What do you hope people come away with, reading this interview?

I didn't want to air all our dirty laundry, either, and I hope I didn't do that, either. I guess I just wish people would stop talking about the bad aspects of Blast-O-Mat or the split. I just wish people would move on. Go to both places, support every DIY venue in this town if you can. Just try to get along. I feel, in the last few years, that people are working together less. When we were younger people, were super-fucking cool with one another. Now the community has changed. People have moved away. People have stopped coming out or whatever.

It's not as nice and unified as it once was. I'm not saying that everybody was friends and holding hands, but I feel like it's much more cutthroat and clique-y now, even within the punk scene. There are all different types of punks, and instead of co-existing, they don't really hang out with each other anymore. It's strange.

People really just need to move on and try starting to get along, because I would sure hate to see Denver be as cutthroat as some of the other cities in the U.S. Because that shit is real. In a lot of places I've played, everybody hates one another, and it's like a toilet bowl full of starving piranhas. It is not cool. I sure hate that.

Aaron said I hated ska and, yes, I do hate it, but it doesn't mean I won't book it. I just want people to know that, and I'm not going to tell you to suck it just because you don't play heavy music. I might only do one of those shows a month. I moved out of Blast-O-Mat to do less shows, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to do them. I just want people to get along, forget about the past and move on into the future. That would be nice.

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