Allout Helter frontman Ross “Hostage” Swirling might as well be running for office, he’s so friendly with everyone at Mutiny Information Cafe, his neighborhood haunt. Fellow musicians come by to say hi and chat, all but kissing the anarchist’s ring. Meanwhile, he sips a swirly, sweet coffee drink on this hot August day and pontificates about how punk, once a politically radical genre, has been poisoned by nihilistic dudes who think swiping at women, people of color and queer people is a good use of their rage.
“Punch up, not down, you assholes,” he says.
His confrontational politics inspire the lyrics he writes for his melodic hardcore band, which celebrates its tenth birthday this month with a two-night stand at the hi-dive.
When it comes to championing anti-fascism in songs with lines borrowed from protest chants like “No justice, no peace/Fuck racist police,” Swirling’s not just spewing gas. He’s active in the music scene and beyond.
On April 1, 2018, the Norwegian black-metal outfit Taake was slated to play Globe Hall. Swirling was among the activists who persuaded the venue to cancel the show, citing the band’s anti-Muslim lyrics and a 2007 incident in Germany in which lead singer Hoest took to the stage with a swastika scrawled on his chest.
Swirling also worked with others in the music scene to shut down a July 29 concert at Lost Lake by Elite Fitrea. A frequent flyer on the open-mic circuit, the act was founded in prison and has a logo that Swirling notes looks suspiciously like a swastika.
Elite Fitrea is led by Bryan Day, vice president and co-founder of Rocky Mountain Men’s Rights Advocacy; Day spent from 2009 to 2015 behind bars after burning down his girlfriend’s father’s house. As Swirling tells it, that makes both projects fronts for violent misogyny.
Day, who denies Swirling’s claims that his work is based in hate, tells Westword, “My experience with the prison system and mental illness has given me a lot of compassion for people, including those who attempt to harm me financially. I can only imagine what it’s like to be Mr. Swirling.”
So, what is it like to be Mr. Swirling?
Allout Helter’s affable frontman constantly shifts between jokester and radical soapboxer. At 35, he’s at least a decade older than most of the kids who make up the punk scene, but he fits in, at least physically, by dressing the part. He often sports black cutoffs and band shirts and has a throwback skater ’do and a scruffy mutton-chop ’stache. All that’s tempered by a goofy dad sensibility, despite having no children of his own.
At night he’s an audio engineer and stagehand at venues such as the Pepsi Center and Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. He came into that work after earning a degree in audio engineering from the University of Colorado Denver and years of setting up AV for corporate conferences at hotels.
In his free time, Swirling stays vigilant about hate groups in Denver and their infiltration of the punk scene. He combats fascist sentiments on social media and in the streets. When bigots decorate Denver with stickers espousing racism, Swirling knifes them off walls. In recent weeks, he’s delivered supplies to local protesters calling for the demise of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
He’s been at it for nearly two decades, since he joined Anti Racist Action, an international anti-authoritarian social movement that shut down white-supremacist gatherings by any means necessary long before Antifa became a hobgoblin of the Fox News set. He met a few ARA members at an underground punk show back in Washington, D.C., during his high school years. Since moving from Maryland to Colorado to attend the University of Colorado Boulder (later transferring to CU Denver) in 2001, he has continued to be involved in radical politics. These days, he invites fellow activists to promote their causes at Allout Helter shows.
“He’s one of the people who I know personally who puts their money where their mouth is and is involved in the types of activism that he sings about and writes about,” says Aaron Saye, operator of DIY music venue Seventh Circle Music Collective. “I think it’s inspiring to see someone who is speaking with their actions as well as their words.”
Pushing concert promoters to cancel shows puts Swirling’s own ability to book gigs for Allout Helter at risk. But because he has developed a reputation for being a kind person and a workhorse DIY promoter, bookers respect him and know he’ll do his best to pack a house, says Saye.
While other musicians bellyache about the injustices of having to promote their own music, Swirling walks the streets of Denver hanging fliers and passing out handbills that he prints at OfficeMax on his own dime.
At Seventh Circle, “Ross has helped book a lot of shows and helped take the reins on lineups when I have a touring band coming through,” says Saye.
There’s no doubt that Allout Helter could thrive on the DIY punk touring circuit. But three of the bandmates are fathers to young children and have full-time jobs. Drummer Ryan Shook has a job in IT, bassist Chad Gilbert works at a call center, guitarist Fred Bear runs Premier Pawn, and guitarist Ryan Tate produces videos for a satellite TV company.
Two weeks ahead of their hi-dive shows, the five musicians cram into a small practice space at Black in Bluhm recording studio at East Colfax and Dahlia. They share rent for the ramshackle room with the rockers in Muscle Beach.
Chugging chilled beers, the bandmates thrash through the sets they’ll play at the hi-dive. The first night will cover older material; the second will be a run-through of their October 2017 album, The Notion of Control, which they never properly christened.
At practice, guitarists Bear and Tate hammer through dizzying technical riffs, often with dueling harmonies that evoke Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”; Shook beats breathlessly on the drums, blasting out machine-gun-fast fills; Gilbert pounds the bass, keeping a steady, speedy rhythm that the rest of Allout Helter cleaves to; and Swirling himself, tick-tocking his pelvis backward and forward, screams into the mic with evangelical fervor between sips of beer and puffs on a vaporizer.
Between songs, the bandmates shake out aching joints and grumble about the heat. The room is cooled with just one rusty 1950s fan that doesn’t oscillate. Swirling, a well-organized bandleader, promises he’ll bring in a better one — some day.
After playing through the list of classic Allout Helter songs, some that have been collecting dust for years, the thirty-something musicians head to the parking lot for fresh air and to reminisce about the group’s founding story. Bear was seventeen when he started playing with Shook, who was 21 at the time. After a few attempts at forming other punk groups, they joined forces with Gilbert to launch Allout Helter in 2008. Two years in, Bear was sick of singing and said he’d “fucking quit” if he couldn’t just focus on guitar.
Swirling’s band of five years, Suburban Hostage, broke up that same year, and he posted an ad on Craigslist, saying he was looking to sing for a new project. Allout Helter and Suburban Hostage had played together, and Fred, Bear and Gilbert jumped at the chance to recruit him.
“I’d like to think that was the most successful Craigslist ad ever,” says the frontman, who endlessly praises his bandmates, noting, “They are not my backup band; I’m their backup singer.”
Not all of the members of Allout Helter share Swirling’s unabashedly anarchist values, but he appreciates that his bandmates put up with his political organizing. In April 2015, a day before one of their concerts, Swirling attended a Denver protest against killer cops. It was days after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, had been arrested and later died in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. At the protest, Swirling was arrested and spent the night pacing in jail, fretting about whether he would get out in time for the show.
While a lot of musicians might be furious that their singer took such a risk the day before a gig, the Allout Helter members bailed Swirling out in time, never questioning his decisions.
Swirling, in turn, has taken on the role of band dad on the group’s few out-of-state shows. The actual fathers in Allout Helter say they treat those mini-tours as full-fledged rock-star vacations, cramming a year’s worth of partying into six hours, drinking themselves into nausea. They tell stories about breaking into swimming pools at 5 a.m. and about Tate leaping from a balcony into a palm tree and skinning his arms on the slide down.
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Swirling keeps things organized, making sure everybody knows what venues they’re playing, ensuring they get there, and treating them to coffee and Danishes on hangover-sullied mornings. And while he rolls his eyes at their binge debauchery — after all, he’s partying on the regular year-round — he notes that those shenanigans hardly define the band.
“We take what we do seriously,” he says.
Allout Helter Ten-Year Anniversary, August 17 and 18, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $10, hi-dive.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong band name in the headline.