Ethan McCarthy sits on the front steps of Flatline Audio, a recording studio in Arvada. His band Primitive Man has been preparing for a short tour and has just laid down tracks for a soon-to-be-released album.
But it’s not just touring or recording that McCarthy is excited about. Cheerfully, he talks about organizing the third edition of Denver All Day Fest, a heavy-music festival that will take place on May 13 and aims to resurrect the DIY heavy-metal and punk scenes that have waned in Denver in recent years.
“It’s just me trying to force everyone that I’m friends with from different sides of the punk and metal scene to get along for one day and play together in places they might not normally play,” says McCarthy of what he has affectionately dubbed “DAD Fest.” As one of the elder statesmen in the underground extreme-music scene in Denver, he has earned the right to the festival name.
“That was part of the joke, because I didn’t know I was going to do it again, and it was just easier to roll with it that way — and I came up with the acronym part of it,” says McCarthy.
“A couple of years ago, I felt there was a real shortage of all-local shows, because we used to throw all-local shows all the time, and we would hang out, and it was cool,” he continues. “It doesn’t happen as often, and there has to be a touring band coming through or something.”
He decided that DAD Fest would be the ultimate all-local show, even if it was just one day a year.
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“I also don’t get to do as many shows as I used to, because I’m on tour all the time,” explains McCarthy. “So for this show, I get to see everybody and still be in the mix. I still care about Denver, but I’ve been out of it often in the last couple of years.”
McCarthy stayed busy with his bands Primitive Man and Vermin Womb in 2016; he also managed the Colorado-based metal band Cobalt. All told, he was out of town for close to eight months during the year.
Primitive Man has played some of the biggest metal festivals in the world, including Roadburn, Netherlands Deathfest and Maryland Deathfest. The 2016 tours took McCarthy — the band’s guitarist and vocalist — across North America, to Europe and to Asia, where Primitive Man played in Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines.
Despite some international acclaim, McCarthy claims musical roots in Denver’s DIY music world — which, in his early twenties, became what he calls the first home he ever had.
McCarthy developed his chops playing in a hardcore band when he was sixteen years old. It was the turn of the century, and the fledgling bass player was gigging with older musicians at bars like Sportsfield Roxxx and “all those shitty places along East Colfax and I-70,” he says.
In 2005, he got his first taste of the DIY scene, attending Denver Fest. During the course of its run through 2007, the event was held in both conventional venues and DIY spaces like the Denver Zine Library. McCarthy met artists who were truly underground, operating outside bars and concert venues and instead building a thriving music community with little in the way of commercial goals.
As a mixed-race person, McCarthy found solidarity in the DIY scene. “There was a lot of racial baggage for me being mixed, and I encountered less of that in those [DIY] places, and I found more brown people in heavy music in those places, too,” he says. “It’s an irreplaceable part of my life, and I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without those environments.”
Within a year of learning about DIY, McCarthy discovered the underground venue Monkey Mania and eventually took the reins of it. By 2007, he’d renamed it the Kingdom of Doom, a reflection of the venue’s shift toward booking heavier acts, including McCarthy’s then-band, Clinging to the Trees of a Forest Fire.
In 2008, law enforcement started scrutinizing DIY spaces in relationship to protests against the Democratic National Convention, which was held in Denver. In November of that same year, the police and fire departments raided Kingdom of Doom and shut it down for having too many people in the space for a single show. But even after Kingdom of Doom had to close, McCarthy became involved in running other spaces, like the Funhouse near the Denver Rescue Mission, Blast-O-Mat and Aqualung’s Community Music Space in northwest Denver.
After Aqualung’s was shuttered following a noise complaint in March 2013, McCarthy managed to find venues — like Rhinoceropolis, Glob, Bar Bar and Mutiny Information Cafe — for the handful of shows he was booking, all while his own bands ramped up their tour schedules.
“I will never not be a part of that [DIY world] and do shows at a place like Rhino or Glob,” says McCarthy. “Bars are cool, and I appreciate the places that work with me and do shows there. But there is nothing like a warehouse show or a house show. It feels like true freedom.”
McCarthy appreciates how DIY venues build a sense of community through lawless camaraderie and a shared appreciation of similar types of music.
“Every once in a while, you’ll have someone stumble in there that doesn’t really belong there, and that’s funny, too, because you get to see how they react to that environment,” says McCarthy. “Generally, it’s a diehards-only thing. I met all of my great friends through that environment, all over the world.”
McCarthy has tried to infuse that spirit into Denver All Day Fest by booking bands that normally wouldn’t play a venue like the hi-dive or 3 Kings Tavern. This year those acts include Midgut, Prison Glue and Civilized.
Although the festival comprises mostly Colorado-based bands from Denver’s extreme metal, punk and noise scenes, DAD Fest III will include industrial act Plack Blague from Lincoln, Nebraska. McCarthy has played basement grindcore shows with that band and opted to include it on the bill.
Ultimately, McCarthy says, he wants to summon the spirit of a bygone DIY era to South Broadway.
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“Back in the day when we were doing it, it really did feel like this city had forgotten all about us, and we were just our own little thing, and it was great,” says McCarthy.
Denver All Day Fest III will mark the first time none of McCarthy’s bands will perform, and in typical fashion, the guitarist is not making the show about him.
“I feel like I’ve been playing too much this year,” says McCarthy. “I’m just going to sit in back and watch everyone have a good time and make sure everything runs well.”