It's no secret that Denver's electronic-music scene has grown exponentially over the past couple of years. But while some of the world's best DJs and producers might swing through town for a night to melt a dance floor, it leaves some local artists asking why we aren't exporting as much talent as we import. Two groups blurring the lines between label, collective, agency and a string of other nouns — Dirty//Clean and Holy Underground — are determined to level the disparity and prove that Denver's scene deserves as much attention as markets on the coasts.
"We have bands here that would rival some of the best in New York or L.A.," declares Ethan Converse of Flashlights. "It's just that the industry eyes aren't on them." Converse is a co-founder of Holy Underground, a name that's sure to become very familiar in the future. "What we are," he explains, "is a music company that operates with a collective mentality."
Jumping from garage rock to electro-pop and everything in between, the Holy Underground roster includes acts like Achille Lauro, School Knights and Sauna on the rock side and Flashlights, ManCub, Force Publique and Cerulean on the more electronic side. "More than a company, it's an umbrella term for our crew," notes Converse. "It covers all the bands we play shows with on a consistent basis, all our friends in the scene. It's much easier to spread as a unit than individually."
By delegating responsibilities among the team, which also includes Alex Anderson of ManCub and Brett Rowley, a talent buyer and event specialist, Holy Underground is basically a one-stop shop that offers everything from management to booking to publicity. All of the guys still work day jobs and run a small record label on the side. There is hierarchy here, but no form. "The beauty of it is, we're still trying to figure out what we are," says James Irvine, Holy Underground's other co-founder and longtime talent buyer for the Larimer Lounge. "We haven't even launched yet, and we have a thousand ideas." Holy Underground's official launch takes place this week and features Flashlights, Force Publique, ManCub and Cerulean on a bill headlined by Steffi Graf from Los Angeles. "It's a celebration of what we're doing," declares Irvine. "It's not every band on the roster, just trying to show everyone what we're about."
The show will be the kick-off to a busy couple of months for Holy Underground, which just dropped a compilation featuring all of the acts on its roster, and there are parties in the works for Halloween and New Year's, plus the pending release of a new EP from Cerulean later this fall. It'll be the label's third album this year, following projects by Flashlights and ManCub.
Dirty//Clean, meanwhile, is a local electronic-music collective that has a narrative arc similar to Holy Underground's, but with a different angle. Launched on New Year's Day 2012 with the release of local dubstep duo Bedrockk's aptly titled Get Born, the members of Dirty//Clean have also made a lot happen in the last nine months. In addition to its increasingly steady stream of local gigs, the imprint has added to its stack of impressive album releases new music from acts such as Checkers, Snubluck and Dawn Safari, which have attention from bigger labels on the West Coast and in Europe.
"We're more of a collective, just helping each other grow," says Dave Marquess, a member of Bedrockk and co-founder of Dirty//Clean along with friend and fellow producer Rameau "Moe" Velez. "It's digital releases and maybe a kickstarter," adds Velez, who performs under the moniker Dawn Safari. "The dream for me would be to start pressing vinyl of our stuff at some point down the road. That would be awesome."
Over the last couple of months, the Dirty//Clean ranks have grown to a total of seven artists who collectively fall somewhere under the umbrella of down- to mid-tempo electronic music but who individually embody very different styles and approaches to creating music. "Snubluck does broken-beat, like L.A.-type stuff. Checkers is doing more two-step, garage, U.K.-style stuff. The stuff I make has got an R&B and electro-blues undertone," notes Marquess. "My personal philosophy on music is not to think about genres too much. We're just trying to mash a bunch of different stuff together and make it hot."
That philosophy becomes clear with a casual listen to the collective's discography thus far, which is eclectic in style but cohesive and consistent in terms of quality. Next month, Dirty//Clean celebrates the release of its seventh album, Dawn Safari's Make Belief, which Velez describes as "dreamy bass music for your couch or the dance floor." He'll debut some of the new record at the Larimer Lounge as part of a lineup that includes Slow Magic and up-and-coming West Coast producer Giraffage.
The chance to land supporting spots for national touring acts has been crucial to the initial success of Dirty//Clean, and it's also helped propel the members of Holy Underground. Those gigs — including Bedrockk opening for SBTRKT and Flashlights supporting Youth Lagoon, to name two of many — opened them up to new fans and new opportunities. But, really, this is just part of the broader goal of gaining exposure on a greater scale for the music being made here.
"The whole reason we started this is because there's talent that isn't getting tapped," says Converse. "These are friends, and these are people we have faith in above all else. They're willing to go above and beyond the scene if the opportunity is there."
"It's a dream to change how people see Denver's electronic music," Marquess enthuses. "It's become such a hub for dope artists from around the world coming through, but there haven't been a ton of people trying to raise the bar coming out of Denver, at least lately."
The problem here isn't a lack of awesome talent, but simply a lack of exposure and understanding. "When people talk about Denver, they ask, 'What's going on there?' Or they'll talk about the Fray or a few other bands that have gotten to be super-mainstream-level," says Converse. "But when people come through here, they're like, 'Hell, yeah, you've got a great scene here.'"
To see how much the scene has grown — not just the electronic scene, but the scene in general — you need look no further than the ever-increasing number of great shows being booked here. "A lot more bands are being routed through Denver now," Irvine points out. "Ten years ago, they'd skip right over because they didn't think we'd have a scene. That's a testament to how great our scene is: Bands come here because there's support."
With an inverse notion of this in mind, the members of Holy Underground and Dirty//Clean are eager to prove that they're worthy of taking awesome music to everyone else's town rather than merely waiting for it to come here.
Holy, Holy, Holy: Ethan Converse, Brett Rowley and James Irvine form half of the Holy Underground team.