Valley independent music scene unites fans with bands
Jake Reed, singer for the indie rock band, Red Panda, belts out a number at a house show in Dad City, one of Amherst's underground music venues.
COURTESY OF SHAINA MISHKIN
Mike Hillier plays the guitar while Jake Reed sings during a house show at Dad City in Amherst.
COURTESY OF SHAINA MISHKIN
Red Panda, a local college rock band, performs at Dad City, an underground music venue in a private home in Amherst. The town has become a hotspot for the DIY music scene, a movement based on sharing and creating art without help from the business world.
David Bazzett, at right, plays bass, Ryan Severin is on drums and Jake Reed sings for the local indie rock band Red Panda. Shown here, the group is playing a show at Dad City, an underground music venue in a private home in Amherst. The location of Dad City and other homes known for hosting music performances are an open secret among the fan base.
Jake Reed, lead singer for indie rock band Red Panda, sings during a house show at Dad City in Amherst.
AMHERST — Some of the hippest venues to catch a band in the Valley are places most people have never heard of: Dad City, Moustache Manor, Blue House, Castlevania, Babe Town.
But good luck getting tickets — or finding one of these underground performance spaces.
The venues local college students flock to in order to see bands like Red Panda, Young Tricksters and The Sharpest are a secret. Also, there are no tickets, no admission fees. These bands play for free.
In Amherst, private homes leased by students host anywhere from two to five concerts a weekend, attracting an average of 50 to 100 people eager to see their friends and listen to music that’s off the mainstream. Among devotees of underground music, the town has a reputation for attracting local as well as touring bands to play house shows, according to Valley musicians.
While many music genres are represented, Amherst’s scene is best known for its “math” rock community. Math rock is a style that marries the free expression of music with the exacting nature of arithmetic, producing a technically efficient melody punctuated by time signature and key changes. (To hear a sample of math rock, check out The Sharpest’s music video for “echo sacchi” at vimeo.com.)
This is Amherst’s underground, or “DIY” music scene — and it’s jamming.
Or at least it was up until last month when a large house show at a West Street home was broken up by Amherst police.
On March 30, officers responded to complaints about a loud gathering featuring a live band. When police got there they found about 250 guests. Three tenants were issued noise and nuisance house fines to the tune of $1,800.
Mike Selden, who lives at Moustache Manor — a place so named for its mustachioed residents — said the steep fines have put a damper on shows, at least for now.
“It’s scared a lot of people into not wanting to have any sort of loud music,” said Selden, a University of Massachusetts student. “A lot of bands have cooled off playing lately. It’s a scary thing. That was a ton of money.”
It may get a little wild at times, but band members say playing at private homes is just about the only place they can perform. There’s a dearth of venues that admit people under age 21 — the prime audience of these largely college-based bands. Flywheel, a collective art space in Easthampton, is one of the few venues with a listed address that consistently has live music for people who aren’t old enough to get into a bar. Easthampton, though, is too far away for many of the Amherst fans and bands to travel, musicians said.
It’s also hard for niche bands to get booked in Amherst and Northampton, musicians said.
“Locally, the most exposure you’re going to get is at a house show; it brings in a more college-age, under 21 crowd,” said Jake Reed, singer for the indie rock band Red Panda and a UMass student.
“Some bands play the whole coast and they’ll stop here and play these little underground shows,” Reed said. “When people come through, they know what houses they can come to.”
But to have a thriving DIY music scene, bands and the homes that host performances have to keep a low profile.
Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said his officers don’t break up many house shows. When officers respond to noise complaints they also check for underage drinking and safety concerns such as overcrowding: the kind of violations that can get a house show shutdown. However, if police aren’t alerted to a party, then nobody is the wiser, and that’s fine by Livingstone.
“If they’re pulling this off without complaints,” Livingstone said, “I’m good with it.”
The DIY (Do It Yourself) scene in Amherst is something of a loose network of bands and enthusiastic fans. Most of the musicians are college students with part-time jobs. A major difference between the commercial music scene and the DIY network is that DIY aims to minimize the need to pay to create and enjoy art. Playing house shows is part of the music movement, which has been enabled by advances in technology. With social media, it’s easy to promote a band or show without having to spend money on advertising. Quality digital recording programs and equipment are relatively affordable, Selden said.
“I feel that a music scene where the performers aren’t put up on a pedestal and can really interact with its audience is a powerful thing,” said Liam Cregan, the drummer for Shakusky, a “punk/emo/math-rocky” band that plays local house shows. “Music is meant to be shared.”
Many of the established venues want bands to sell tickets or ensure a good audience turnout, Cregan added, “which is a slightly reasonable request, but we’re not interested in venues taking financial advantage of us.”
While no admission is charged at a house show, donations are sometimes collected if a band travelled from out of town to perform, said Adam Barbati, bass player for The Sharpest. “It’s nice to throw them a couple of bucks to get home.” And beverages are BYOB.
“It’s really just about us being able to share our art in a way that is most accessible to people,” said Jesse French, a bass player and singer for the Young Tricksters, a local rock band that plays house shows. “A lot of folks, it’s just much easier for them to go to a house, you know, on the bus line, or right next to the college.”
So, how do you find an unadvertised show at a secret location?
You have to know the right people. And have a Facebook page.
The most common way fans and friends find out about an upcoming performance is through social media like Facebook and Twitter and by word of mouth. By liking a band’s page on Facebook, fans get regular updates about new music and shows from the band.
Venue addresses are almost never posted on Facebook, Selden said. A first-timer at a house show has to have a friend who knows where it’s located or get in touch with the band.
“It’s risky to post an address,” Selden said. “The police probably troll Facebook, so in general the address isn’t posted.”
Another risk of making an address public is the wrong kind of people might show up, Reed said.
“There’s an amount of respect that should be given to these houses,” he said. “I know some people go there and get belligerent and be disrespectful, a fight will happen: that kind of stuff really isn’t OK. The houses won’t stick around if stuff like that happens.”
Something else bands have to worry about when promoting a show is when to start. The earlier a show is announced, the more people attend. Cregan said this is what went wrong with the show that was broken up by police on West Street. The three-band show was over-advertised, he said.
“The earlier a show is announced, the more people find out and the more likely it will be interpreted as a party/excuse to get drunk instead of a musical exhibition,” said Cregan in an email interview with the Gazette.
And the more likely the police are to show up.
Barbati said The Sharpest almost missed playing a show at Moustache Manor recently because too many people arrived; there was a sense police were on the way.
“We had to wait until 1 a.m. to play. There was talk of the police coming and there were too many people. It was a whole mess, but we actually did get to play,” Barbati said. “It was a lot of fun. A packed, sweaty basement where it’s hard to move around makes for the best shows.”
Selden, a Moustache Manor resident, said the manor residents will contact bands and ask them to play, but often bands will contact the house and ask to play.
“Know people, know bands,” Cregan said. “You have to establish relationships with people who are willing to host a performance, especially if it is a rowdier kind of music.”
Moustache Manor started hosting shows this year. Selden said he and his housemates decided long before leasing the manor that their home would be a space for live music. This meant they needed a large, empty basement for performances and some seclusion. The manor has been such a successful place to host bands, Selden said; the housemates will lease it again for the coming academic year. He said they haven’t received many complaints from neighbors about the music.
“One time a neighbor asked us to quiet down, but that’s as far as it’s gotten,” Selden said. “And we appreciated them being so nice about it. That was a particularly large night. We try to avoid those at this point.”
There are plenty of risks to playing a house show, but Barbati said the atmosphere and the musical community having an underground music scene creates makes it all worthwhile.
“We’ll play wherever, really wherever people want us to play, we’re up for it,” he said. “But if it were up to me, at least, the most enjoyable place to play is at a house. It’s a little more laid back and has less rules.”