Over and over on a multimedia screen, the blue swirls and golden orbs of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" dissolve and re-form, accompanied by a fittingly kaleidoscopic live soundtrack. Shadowed before the dripping images, Denver jazz saxophonist Pete Wall riffs feverishly on his horn, the notes whirling atop interlocking layers of rhythm laid down by a bongo player and a DJ mixing deep house-dance beats on a pair of turntables.
The DJ is Tom Hoch, co-founder of Mile High House Productions, which is a local association of DJs, promoters and producers, many of whom double as graphic artists. Since its members began collectively organizing events in earnest in 1999, Mile High House Productions has evolved into a warm, fuzzy force to be reckoned with in Colorado's electronic music scene. It is the name behind seven wildly diverse club nights each week in Denver and Boulder, as well as regular happenings in Aspen and Vail and a monthly series of sensational underground after-hours parties at a teahouse in Five Points.
Every Monday, Mile High House hosts its Textiles club night at 1515 Market. Textiles is when Wall cuts loose in a radically alternative atmosphere and with a far more eclectic cast of players than the traditional jazz combos the 24-year-old journeyman gigs with his other five working nights of the week. A jazz saxophonist jamming weekly in LoDo with techno DJs and a tribal percussionist is purely reflective of the heavy emphasis Mile High House places on melding live instruments and performances with the pre-recorded beats typical of electronic ambient and dance music.
"We're really into pushing the live thing, because it simply crushes monotony," says Hoch. "I'm not trying to discredit anyone who spins records. I'm a DJ myself. But the truth is that almost anyone can figure out how to be a DJ. They may not be able to be a superstar, but with enough practice they'll be able to competently mix records. We want to go beyond that: What we're all about is incorporating strong DJs with strong elements of live performance, because that makes for a more legitimate show. It takes more effort than showing up with a bag of records, but as a result it's more deserving of the best showcases we can come up with."
On a Textiles night in late January, nearly a hundred clubgoers braved freeze-your-eyelashes cold to hit the hot spot, which usually peaks between midnight and one in the morning. Most in attendance looked to be in their late twenties and early thirties. That is, young enough to have participated in underground dance music's steady rise in popularity over the course of the '90s, yet now old enough to feel uncomfortable in an auditorium packed with pacifier-sucking, Vicks-huffing, teenaged candy ravers. Mile High House's motto is: "Music by big kids, for big kids."
"If you are a big kid, meaning not a knucklehead drug-addict rave-punk kid, then our scene is for you," says Hoch, who is 32.
True to rave style, though, dancers at Textiles on the mid-winter Monday didn't pair off. They danced alone or en masse, depending on how you look at it, and they stayed close to the stage, which was the only spot where the music was too loud for conversation. The tables and booths in the back were divided about equally between groups of friends socializing and those absorbed in the music. Wall switched instruments often, playing alto sax, soprano sax and flute. The music drifted downstairs to a lounge, where five hipsters on a couch played a racing game on a big-screen TV, politely ignoring a threesome tongue kissing on a nearby loveseat.
Though untamed for a school night, the vibe at Textiles was laid-back in comparison to January's Mile High House after-hours Tea Party, which went on until four in the morning. Held the first or second Saturday of every month at the Gemini Tea Emporium, the Tea Parties are a purely underground phenomenon. They are not advertised in any publications. There are no fliers. Details are word of mouth only, but word gets around. By midnight the party was rocking. By two in the morning, when the second wave hit right after last call at the bars, the party was simply off the hook. Three hundred people came through the door, half of them in the fifteen minutes on either side of closing time. Nearly every square inch of the teahouse became a dance floor as the new arrivals imbibed cups of strong tea, mixing caffeine with the alcohol in their systems for a poor man's speedball effect. Wall showed up after his regular gig to jam with the party's headliner, a marquee Canadian turntablist who agreed to play the Tea Party for much less than his usual four-figure Saturday-night fee.
"We're fortunate that Denver is still in that mid-range where you can get a five-star-hotel DJ to come out and crash on your couch," says Hoch.
Even so, out-of-towners are the exception at Mile High House events, not the rule. And when a five-star-hotel DJ does wind up on Hoch's couch, it's usually because he or she has agreed to trade gigs -- accepting an offer to play in Denver in exchange for a commitment to book a Mile High House member in another area. Hoch is stickler on this point.
"One of our big motivations for getting Mile High House going was not wanting to have to move to San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York in order to make a name for ourselves," he says. "The idea from the beginning has been to remain based in Denver but travel as much as possible and try to establish a national presence."
Hoch launched Mile High House with Denver electronic-music producers Seafoam, Ilk, Hydrophonic, Annex of Soul and the Missing Link, along with a number of Denver DJs including Ivy, Mike Day, Ejay (the Friday-night resident at Club Soma in Boulder), Miss Audry and the Coffin Brothers. The collective took its name from a misprint on a flier that promoted a record-release party for Seafoam's 1999 debut on the Chicago underground-dance-music powerhouse label Guidance Recordings.
"The name of the record is Mile High e.p.," says Hoch. "[The flier] came out Mile High House e.p. But we thought, 'Hey, sounds cool.' I got bios from everybody, got samples of music from everybody and got about twenty sets of Mile High House business cards made up, handed them out and told everybody, 'For this to work, we all have to talk up the rest of the crew. If we get selfish or greedy, we will fail.'"
Around that same time -- late 1999 -- Hoch was diagnosed with polymyositis, a rare disease that misleads the body's immune system into attacking muscle tissue.
"I felt like Superman on a big hit of Kryptonite," says Hoch. "I went from shooting video at the extreme-skiing championships in Valdez, Alaska, to not being able to raise my arms above my head." He virtually stayed home for months, working relentlessly on the computer, getting the Mile High House Web site up and networking via e-mail. "I don't know if I'd call it a blessing in disguise, but it did enable or force me to get critical mass behind the project." Though he still suffers from the condition, Hoch has largely recovered, regaining much of his weight and strength.
In March 2000, Mile High House Productions made its presence known at the Winter Music Conference in Miami, the electronic-music industry's annual gathering of the tribes. Hoch coordinated a massive party at the Clevelander Hotel on Miami Beach that featured Mile High alongside DJs and producers from Denver's more prominent dance-music group, Casa Del Soul.
"We're as proud of them as they are of us," says Hoch of the Casa crew. "We're not about competing; we're about promoting Denver. We're not elitists. We're just a bunch of regular Joes from Aurora. There's no secret handshake we learned from Paul Oakenfold."
One of the key strategies in Mile High House's success has been chasing down high-profile, high-paying commercial and corporate gigs to underwrite its more purist, less-profitable endeavors.
"When we play the Red Bull tent at the 311/Pennywise show, there are those who would call us sellouts, but to us it's exposure and money," says Hoch. "We're not about to play trance at the Church for 200 bucks a night when we can play a wedding for a lot more money that we can then turn around and pour right back into this thing."