Connect with us
[adrotate banner="51"]

Downtown

In A Basement In Richmond – Music is weird.

Harris Mendell is soon pulling up stakes and moving but has a few words of wisdom on getting involved in music in Richmond.

RVAHub Staff

Published

on

Music is weird.

Everyone wants it, some people own it, most people borrow it from a server farm somewhere. Millions of kids dedicate their youth to performing it and the vast majority never see a dollar. If you asked enough of them I’m sure many would tell you that’s what they expect for themselves. The dgaf outlook of an early post-teen power chordist is pretty much the textbook definition of cliche — but something feels different these days. The internet brought forth the promised gift of a world without middle men and from it burst a million Bandcamps, a thousand premiers a day, a mountain of content so high the lack of oxygen suffocates the brave souls who just wanted to hear a tune.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned from music.

When I was fifteen I learned through my shitty Green Day rip off band (I wore a tie) that punk is way more fun than high school, a fact which inevitably lead to me graduating with a 1.9 and a life-sized stuffed panda bear whose head doubled as paraphernalia storage. That band, All Systems Go, never recorded — but somehow our shows were packed and the kids knew the words to our songs. We even had a mascot, his name was Eric, he wore a cape and thought he was in the band.

All Systems Go hailed from my high school town of Purcellville, VA — too far west to be considered DC suburbs but still an hour bus ride east from my mom’s place in Upperville. Blinking billboards warned of overpopulation-driven water shortages in the summer, it was a big fucking deal when Quiznos came to town, and teenage suicide was a problem. If you grew up in a place like this you know that part of the deal is that there just isn’t really anything to do. Some of the older kids in town (Carl and Max) ran punk shows at the local skating rink, and when we caught wind of what was going on there we got involved to the point of later carrying the torch. At that point in 2005/2006 it wasn’t uncommon for 100 kids to be at an all locals show — like I said, there wasn’t an awful lot to do, and punk is sick.

Anyway, time crept on as it does. The band dissolved and formed anew in different incarnations of our budding tastes — a misfits themed ska band called Nightfright, the band that formed from our drummer’s sudden transformation from flat brimmed blink-182 kid to Witch Hunt patched oogle, and towards the end of senior year a kid dynamite worship band (of course) called With New Eyes. We turned eighteen, discovered straight edge and decided to move somewhere together — either Philadelphia or Richmond. Paint It Black was from the former, Strike Anywhere the latter, honestly our thought process didn’t really extend much beyond that.

I’ll never forget calling former Purcellville-skating-rink-punk-mayor-turned-richmond-resident Carl Athey and asking him what it was like down there. From our perspective if 100 kids came out to a show in the middle of nowhere a city like Richmond had to be fucking insane. Carl tried to temper expectations but our minds were set and filled with dreams of the mosh. James, Eric, Nick, David and I graduated, packed our bags into our parents cars and moved down to a shitty graffiti walled apartment on Robinson that August. We were welcomed to town by the biggest rat I’d ever seen.

Everything about moving to Richmond changed my life. I wish I could adequately explain what it was like for a country kid with no car to suddenly find himself in a position where that didn’t matter. Richmond replaced 45 minute rides from my mom with a crappy 10 speed bike. High school was swapped with a job at a coffee shop, and night after night getting high on video games turned into night after night at local punk shows.

The population to gig-crazy ratio I imagined in high school turned out to not be a very consistent model. Sure when Avail or Municipal Waste played at Alley Katz it was absolutely nuts, and my first weekend in Richmond did find me crowd surfing into a basement to catch Drop Dead fifteen minutes before the floor collapsed, but most of the shows I went to had a modest crowd of fifteen to twenty people. These gigs were hosted in the eating area of Nara Sushi or where the clothing racks normally stood in Rumors, a local consignment shop. At the time, a truly great era of Richmond house shows was coming to a close as a portion of the police department called C.A.P.S. stopped enforcing building codes to close down drug houses and started using the methodology to shut down local DIY show and art spaces. It was rough going to find a spot to play, and no one wanted to play Ramakins.

Times being tough didn’t stop me from seeing incredible locals like Brainworms, Antlers, The Catalyst, Pink Razors and Ultra Dolphins on a weekly basis. I had joined Carl and Max’s new band Friendly Fire and we had the pleasure of playing with the aforementioned bands at some of the aforementioned venues on the reg. One of these gigs was set up at Nara by an 18 year old kid who had recently moved from Nebraska via Virginia beach. His name was Alex Wilhelm and the first thing he said to me was “Hey man, did you guys bring a PA?”

Alex and I bonded together over a mutual love and adoration of pop punk in a city whose residents generally had a mutual disgust and revulsion of pop punk. As such, many of the fifteen-kid shows I mentioned happened to be Alex’s shows, and that’s probably on the optimistic side of things. Despite not garnering the greatest turnout Alex would book essentially every band that asked for a gig in Richmond. Many weeks saw him at Nara sushi for four to five nights. This kept up for a few years and slowly but surely, after dozens and dozens of gigs, kids started showing up.

It’s a hard thing to put my finger on but there was a moment, a period in time in which I felt like I was no longer going to someone else’s shows, that we suddenly had found ourselves with our own scene or community or whatever you want to call it. I was still going out to see the older kids’ bands play, but now we were starting and supporting bands from within our own micro-community. We were throwing shows in our living rooms and basements and warehouse spots and with the connections built from these gigs we went on tour. Around this time I started my first band that people I didn’t know gave a shit about, and in seven years met almost everyone I now consider important in my life.

When I look back and think about what I’ve gotten from music, I realize that I’ve always known why that early post-teen power chordist doesn’t give a shit about making money. It’s not because they are naive or engaging in escapism, and it’s not based on faux-optimism. It’s because the world can be cruel. It can be lonely and boring and full of hatred and suspicion. It’s because the world makes it so easy to engage in consumption that sometimes you question what your own identity is worth.

There is something beautiful about creation, about putting something into the world instead of taking from it. When I’m near creation, I’m inspired to live. I’m inspired to meet people and have friends and be truly optimistic about humanity. I’m getting older now, I’m going into a career and moving to a new city and I’m full of fear that I will lose this part of my life that I deeply feel has given me everything I am as a person. I’m probably not going to be crowd surfing into basements or throwing four shows a week in my living room, but I’m figuring it out. I want the web of our little community to grow from me just as it grew to me. I want to inspire younger people to throw gigs at their local skating rink, to start warehouses and to book their own tours.

I’m not really sure how to do this, but I think it can start by questioning my own cynicism. I think it can start by not spending my evenings on Netflix, by going out to see live music and performance and art and not question or ridicule the way things change — because they do and they will continue to. I think it can start by not letting the ever growing mountain of digital content overwhelm and consume my desire to create or be near creation.

Tonight there is a show in a basement in Richmond. The bands are alright the heat is suffocating and the cops are probably on their way. I may not go, but I hope to tomorrow. I hope to next year.


Originally posted here, reposted with permission by the author Harris Mendell. – Harris is soon pulling up stakes and moving but has a few words of wisdom on getting involved in music in Richmond.

Image: Creative Commons Flickr User Joan

Will you help support independent, local journalism?

We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.