At the start of 2015, I didn’t know if I’d ever escape my home state of Wisconsin. It was a state that I’d come to love, but one that I desperately wanted to leave, at least for a little while. I knew there were places and people in New York that could afford me opportunities that I wouldn’t have in Stevens Point—a particularly desolate and isolated town in central Wisconsin—so I took on a soul-crushing job as a customer service representative for a bank and braced myself until I’d saved enough to head out east to Brooklyn.
The first place I went after touching down in New York in June—and the place where I stayed for my first several nights in the city—was David Blaine’s the Steakhouse (DBTS), a DIY venue and apartment that houses members of LVL UP, Porches., Cende, and Slight, as well as a rotating cast of members and ex-members of a variety of other local punk-tinged bands, like Krill and The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die.
When I arrived, nearly everyone in the house was in the process of wrapping a rehearsal for Montana & The Marvelles, a newly formed band that was created with the sole intention of playing formal events, shrouding themselves in more than a few layers of mystique. The group was comprised of a bunch of very talented individuals who played in multiple other acclaimed projects, including Montana Levy (Sharpless), Jim Hall (Slight and Painted Zeros), Chris Daley, Nick Corbo (LVL UP, Crying, and Normal Person), and Greg Rutkin (LVL UP, Normal Person, Slight, and Cende). Soon after, they’d style themselves as a “wedding band.”
Photo of Montana & The Marvelles by Steven Spoerl
That’s right: DBTS was playing host to a newly wedded couple who didn’t want to miss their chance to cut loose with friends after a small, private ceremony earlier that day. There was champagne in bulk, a taco line, and even a root beer float section, replete with a root beer keg. Balloons floated to the ceiling, a disco ball glittered on its axis, people were decked out in their finest, and Montana & The Marvelles unveiled a fiery, punk rock cover set that touched on everything from Ben E. King to Violent Femmes and Angel Olsen. It was the group’s first public outing—in honor of the married couple, highlighting the spirit of community surrounding DBTS—and a night that’ll be remembered fondly by everyone who was there.
At the time, the shadow of several recently closed venues—285 Kent and Death By Audio were two that friends often cited—was still looming heavily over the Brooklyn scene, despite musicians and fans’ resourcefulness in creating new opportunities to see and play music. DBTS quickly showed that, even in the absence of these beloved spaces, Brooklyn still had a large and open-armed community of hardworking and talented musicians. Twenty minutes into my Brooklyn stay—when I first heard Montana & The Marvelles rehearse—I’d already stumbled across the type of project that simply hadn’t existed anywhere in Wisconsin.
The set had an immediate effect on me. Three days after moving, I had maxed out my camera’s 32GB memory card; I knew that something was happening in the borough that needed to be captured, appreciated, and remembered. I wasn’t just preserving performances of songs, but also creating a living document of the surroundings of those moments, starting with an actual secret wedding party.
By the time I’d arrived in New York, LVL UP, Porches., and other resident-based bands had already started picking up acclaim from press outlets and expanding their audience. Bands like Pile were suddenly the focus of cover stories at publications like Consequence of Sound, and labels like Domino were snapping up Bandcamp-friendly artists like Porches. and Alex G (whose then-forthcoming record, Beach Music, was in near-constant rotation during the quietest moments at DBTS).
Despite this recognition, these artists were still giving back to the community in a way that many others in their shoes wouldn’t, remaining committed to the smaller venues and bands in favor of jumping at the flashiest of opportunities. For the first time in my life, I was getting a direct glimpse into the inner workings of a wide artistic community that was constantly pulling artists, writers, and other creative types into its orbit. Restrictions mattered less and creating memories mattered more—an attitude that has always been at the heart of DIY music’s worldview.
DBTS runs a tight ship. With any project I encountered within the venue’s extended family, each aspect of the creative process was thought-out to the nth degree. Watching them hit the moments of finality on their projects—whether music videos, albums, or interior installations—was nothing short of inspiring. Even the placement of a desk in the house required a discussion between at least two residents, which then expanded until the house had a miniature schoolroom section, completed hours later with a chalkboard and a map of the globe.
Over time, I began to understand how DBTS keeps drawing participants (and new fans) into its orbit. The residents champion the music they believe in (and, by extension at this point, music I believe in) using every platform at their disposal, hosting and playing endless spates of shows, recording like crazy, and getting the word out through all manner of media. In addition to pushing their own projects forward, these groups stay committed to their foundations and their friends, forging alliances that are mutually beneficial to all parties involved.
Back in central Wisconsin, there are independent music communities, sure; however, artists often still work in isolation geographically and, even more so, from the press and record labels. Someone like Colin Bares can write some of the most gripping songs of the year through his solo project The Weasel, Marten Fisher (which he did)—and no one will bat an eye, due to his lack of access to the types of press outlets that could make his career.
Frequently hailed as a songwriting talent on par with an iconic figure like Daniel Johnston, Bares evokes Johnston’s weariness and practices a similarly endearing brand of outsider folk, and he turned in music this year that ranks easily alongside the best of DBTS. Because he lives far out in the midwest, however, he lacks access to the parties and house shows, and the social support system, available to artists in New York or Los Angeles. SoundCloud and Bandcamp help, but they often need an extra push. And there isn’t much music press in rural Wisconsin.
Talent, sadly, isn’t everything—a cruel fact that was drilled into my head repeatedly in the eight years I waited for beloved Wisconsin band Tenement to break out on a national scale. One of the only central Wisconsin artists to have made a wider impact over the past few decades, the punk trio built most of their success from the ground floor up, operating a house venue from 2007 to 2011 that frequently brought in acts from all over, like Screaming Females, Cheap Girls, and PS Eliot.
The BFG, the community-driven punk house they lived in, with its inclusive ideology, remains one of the closest things Wisconsin has ever had to a DBTS setting. Tenement’s 2015 album, Predatory Highlights, finally earned the group national praise and prompted bigger touring, but I can only imagine that success would have come sooner if they’d had a supportive community like DBTS and other Brooklyn hotspots to lean on.
With that thought chipping away, I knew that when I eventually returned to Wisconsin, I’d have a few things to pull from and a few things to celebrate from my Brooklyn days. In the case of the former, it’d be figuring out a way to—using my connections as a photographer, journalist, and musician—foster community and keep independent arts relevant in a town that has been historically dismissive of its artistic branches. After spending time in Brooklyn, even with the knowledge that press was hard to come by in Wisconsin, I had some hope for an approach that would have its foundation built around celebrating the few active, enormously talented artists in the area. Before too long, a return date was set.
During my last few months in New York, I refocused on preserving as much of what was happening in Brooklyn as I possibly could. And now that I’m back in Wisconsin, I’m ready to remove the lens cap of my camera and start rolling, without ever thinking to stop. There are too many talented voices that deserve to be heard—and if I can help people hear them, I will do everything in my power to make that happen. After all, that’s what a family does, and that’s what 2015’s taught me again and again, no matter the location.
Really, if 2015 has proven anything to me, it’s that the DIY ethos is as alive as ever—not just in music (which is still, arguably, where it has the most impact), but in entertainment as a whole. Cassettes are a more prominent release format than they have been in decades, and a film like the acclaimed transgender drama Tangerine—shot entirely on an iPhone 5s by an emerging filmmaker—made serious traction on the festival circuit, picking up numerous awards and near-universal acclaim along the way. Both developments point to the fact that in order for a work to impact or resonate with an audience, an industry-based approach isn’t necessary.
And that ability to connect with people the grassroots way can be traced back to one thing, really: a compassionate community.