For almost a decade, it's been pretty standard for Boulder-born rock bands to relocate to Denver to find regional and national success. That's at least partly due to Boulder’s lack of a small, music-focused venue that could serve as a bridge between cafes and bar-and-grills and headlining the Fox Theatre. Recently, though, Denver bands have started to make the pilgrimage north for gigs more frequently, largely due to First Base Tapes. It’s a cassette-only Boulder label that started releasing albums by interesting, edgy Denver bands like Male Blonding, Scary Drugs and Montoneros last year and is now greatly contributing to the cultivation of a local rock scene in Boulder.
When they arrive for an interview, the young guys (all of them current or former University of Colorado students and DJs at the tremendous Radio 1190) who run First Base Tapes seem more like an army than an indie label. And only five of the nine music-loving First Base Tapes dudes showed up to speak with Westword earlier this month.
Kenny Prior, age twenty, and Donato Ruscitti, nineteen, met at Monarch High School in Louisville, but everyone else at First Base Tapes — which regularly puts on successful Boulder house concerts and warehouse shows (chiefly at the Forge) in addition to releasing tapes by Boulder and Denver bands — met at the University of Colorado.
“I came here [from Bryan, Texas] not knowing a single person, so the main friend group I built was around 1190,” says 21-year-old Colton O’Connor.
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“We got invested in the DIY scene — mainly the Denver scene, because the one in Boulder wasn’t as thriving — and our idea was initially to get a warehouse and start a venue,” Liam Comer, 24 and from Boulder, explains. “We had done some booking with house shows and at smaller venues with 1190 and wanted to look into getting our own space. Based on that idea, we thought about having a recording studio in the back [of the venue] and eventually thought, ‘Why don’t we start a label and put out music ourselves? We don’t need to put down a huge deposit on a location; we can do that from our homes.”’
A record-store owner in Boulder said, matter-of-factly, “That’s cute,” when I told him about First Base Tapes’ frugal cassette-only vision, which stemmed from an 1190 in-studio performance by L.A.’s Death Valley Girls that Comer and O’Connor recorded over an old tape of bird sounds. But First Base Tapes’ connection with a vital, progressive local radio station — meaning access to “very, very expensive equipment” and networking and promotion opportunities — sets it apart from your average hipster dorm-room label.
Only one of the cassettes that First Base Tapes has put out so far — they're usually done in runs of 100 and sold for $5 — hasn’t sold out, but the dudes in charge say the music will mostly be downloaded, and the point is more to get a Boulder music scene going again. Still, cassettes — and the memory of how touching it was when someone put the effort into making you a mixtape back in the day — are quirky and fun, and encourage listeners to check out album sides rather than fast-food servings of single tracks.
“The cassette revival is really ramping up,” Prior asserts. “You go to Urban Outfitters and see Lana Del Rey tapes. It’s really starting to get commercial.”
“And people our age drive old cars,” Ruscitti adds.
“Especially with Cassette Store Day, I knew it was a pretty big deal here, with Twist & Shout giving out all those cassettes,” says Adam Tammariello, age twenty and from San Diego. “And that Rolling Stone article about Burger Records [which also does cassettes] was pretty cool. That was a nice insight into what we do, actually.”
Despite not having a small rock club — such as Denver’s hi-dive or Fort Collins’s Hodi’s Half Note — at which to nurture a local scene, First Base Tapes has put on house concerts and warehouse happenings that have been so successful that promising Denver bands are now getting in touch to be a part of what’s happening in Boulder.
Denver indie-rocker Scatter Gather, for instance, is playing a highly anticipated tour kickoff party hosted by First Base in Boulder this Friday, May 20.
“The reason we created this is because we had nothing to do in Boulder,” O’Connor says. “We started off as only going to shows in Denver and only knowing about bands from Denver. We were even mostly putting out tapes by Denver bands, but we’ve made a point of saying, ‘This is a Boulder label.’ We want to have Boulder stand on its own.”
So is there a Boulder music scene now?
“If you would’ve asked me just a few months ago, I would have said no,” O’Connor replies. “But the Forge has been good at helping a lot of Boulder bands come up. Now I know a good four to five that aren’t just the typical jam bands.”
“It’s sparse and it’s selective, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on underground, like Grass,” says Ruscitti. “They’re a crazy-good Boulder band.”
“It’s so hard for the Boulder music scene to grow because the Fox and the Boulder theaters just continue to book the same kind of music for the same kind of crowd,” Prior complains.
“Everyone is aware of that in this town, and it’s unfortunate that we don’t have a stepladder [venue],” Comer adds. “The demand is there, but we need that place for the culture to be centered around.”
Earlier this month in a Westword interview, powerful local promoter Don Strasburg questioned whether there is enough demand in Boulder for a small rock club to make it a financially viable endeavor, but Tammariello, in particular, says there is.
“We really want to invest in Boulder. We all feel that there’s a lot of potential here, so making something like a tape label and even doing stuff with the Forge, that’s a great thing. Promoting that kind of culture and getting that kind of stuff back here is definitely worthwhile. Gradually, as things like house shows and warehouse shows start popping up, it gives people an option; it gives people a reason to be invested.”
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“I feel like a lot of people who come to CU and want to integrate into the culture, their only option is the kind of stuff we see at the Fox and the Boulder theaters, with all the EDM and stuff,” Tammariello concludes. “Given that option, I think you would see a lot more people get invested in local music here.”
When asked whether they’ll actually stay in Boulder long-term, the purveyors of First Base Tapes were less emphatic.
“That’s hard for me to answer,” Ruscitti says.
“We’re open to it evolving,” Comer explains, “but it’s going to continue to exist in some incarnation, because it seems clear that a lot of us will stay in music. We’d like to keep it in Boulder, because you need to fight in Boulder to maintain a music scene here, so we would like to keep building up the ability for people to make a band and put something out and play shows in Boulder.”
First Base Tapes presents Scatter Gather's tour kickoff party on Friday, May 20, at 3775 Moorhead Avenue in Boulder.