Denver DIY: an interview with Nicholas Houde

This interview was conducted by Daniel Jones and Michael Aniser.

There’s a certain mythos that has surrounded Denver in the last six or seven years. Bands like Dan Deacon and Pictureplane have made the name ‘Rhinoceropolis‘ something of a legend amongst underground music fans, leading to the idea of a thriving music community akin to the hype surrounding experimental venues like The Smell. But, as natives will tell you, this isn’t the case. We sat down with former Denver native, musician and Rhinoceropolis promoter Nicholas Houde.

There’s this myth about how Denver is this cool zone and everyone’s going out to shows and everyone’s a musician.

During the time when I was living and we were trying to do a lot of shows it was very antagonistic. We were ostracized by a lot of people in the media, by the proper clubs, by the people who ran the bars in town.

Why?

They didn’t take us seriously. There were messageboards saying stuff like “it’s just a bunch of assholes smoking a bong, playing a delay pedal.”

That doesn’t strike me as the Denver sound at all. It’s less of a psychedelic hippy vibe, more of a mutant vibe.

Yeah, but that was just their poor articulation and because it wasn’t alt-country. That’s big there.

Like what, Jay Munly, 16 Horsepower and that sort of thing? 

Nooooo, haha. More like Wilco.

It sounds like that scene from Ghost World where Steve Buscemi’s character was this blues fanatic who had all these ragtime records from the 1920s and then he was taken to a sports bar to see these white bros performing some blues-rock. 

It’s a complicated thing. There’s a long history of alternative spaces in Denver but they’ve always been really separate. There was a period, maybe 2000 – 2005, where Friends Forever were doing Monkey Mania, and then Denver got actually really big. Any of us that got involved withRhinoceropolis, the stuff we were doing was a direct response to that and it was also tied into Fort Thunder in Rhode Island and all these other spaces, Load Records, all these things were happening around the same time. It was big for a minute and then we were like the aftermath. As a result, for some reason it wasn’t cool, especially in the beginning. No one came to shows by Rhinoceropolis in the beginning.

That seems weird. Who was playing?

It would be like Dan Deacon, Pictureplane, Married in Berdichev, and there would be like 15 people there. At first the clubs would never let us play and if they did they would specifically stiff us because they knew that we didn’t care about money. There was a lot of that going on. People at large didn’t really take it seriously but then, as things grew and people were doing more and more shows they was more of a buzz around it with Rhinoceropolis, there was the obvious people coming from Monkey Mania but then after that …

When do you think it started to change?

It begun in 2005, I played the third show there ever. I had moved to Denver a week prior and got asked to play this show. I would say the first year was really shaky because they were doing a lot of harsh noise shows and then some dance nights but there wasn’t really a consistent spine to the promoting. Especially considering Monkey Mania was still open but then it changed hands to these other kids who were full of shit. There’s a lot of history, how do you put it all together? Around 2007 and 2008 things really picked up and around that time it was really fantastic. I was booking a lot of shows there at that point too and it was like HEALTH, Dan Deacon, High Places, dudes from Wolf Eyes… these constellations of people. Around that time things started to change.

That’s when I started to discover all this Denver stuff, I got really into Hideous Man and Pictureplane and Married In Berdichev and then I started talking to this local kid Colin a little bit.

Colin does a project called Alphabets and I met him for the first time when he was 14 years old. I used to book shows at my house and I had a lot of shows going on, and he knew me from that. He handed me a CD in a coffeeshop and said “Can I play at your house sometime?”After that he was always around, he was always involved. He also brought his friend Nick Peeler and this series of high school kids into Rhinoceropolis and that was a huge lifeblood push. These were kids who were really searching for something … people to take the torch.

Did you ever play at Silent Barn in New York? The way you talk about Rhinoceropolis reminds me a lot of that kind of scene.

Really similar, except I think the difference is that we were really naive. Buddy and Warren had toured a bit because they were in this band called Zombie Zombie, who were a really big deal for a minute in the west and that spawned the Ultra Boys. So they had been going to LA to The Smell and a few other really famous spaces around, but for the most part people in Denver had no clue about what was cool in New York. They had no idea about what was cool in LA. Most people were coming tabula rasa.

I like that it had its own natural influences instead of outside influences.

I think that’s why things have gone to shit. For a few years people into this sort of music were really paying attention to Denver, which is detrimental some ways but also really beautiful because people were focused on what was happening there. Meanwhile these musicians were doing what they wanted because nobody thought they could get famous. Their aspirations weren’t “we’re going to create a band and get famous”, rather “I’m going to make a band and make weird sounds because it’s what I want to do because no band from Denver could get famous!” This mentality preserves things in a way. That’s what was happening, all of us were doing really weird shit and having fun wearing goofy clothes and being really irresponsible because none of this matters. There was never any careerist pretention, no image to save, no PR. It was the opposite: “come to our house and have a show!”

I wish more people in music were like that; more community-oriented about music.

I think that was an amazing asset of the mid- to late 2000s in the US, but I’m a firm believer that fame plus the level of moneytization in the music industry crushed people, especially smaller bands. There was a threshold right around 2009 or so where suddenly it wasn’t bands emailing directly but booking agents. We were like “we don’t do guarantees, we can barely scrape any money off the door”. Rhinoceropolis sustained itself from people living there; it had no economic imperative and people then were very bad about paying for shows. Around that time a lot of bands got famous and developed this attitude. The one that didn’t act in this way was Dan Deacon. Everyone else started getting booking agents, press agents, PR dudes.

What do you think is Denver’s future now?

It’s hard to say. I only have a few friends there, everyone left. I’m not very excited about what’s going on right now. The last couple of times I went there because there were a lot of people trying to dress like Travis Egedy and a lot of very uninspired bands.

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Rising – Married In Berdichev

Rising - Married In Berdichev

I’m in love. I don’t mean with a person, or at least not a whole person. I’m in love with a voice, and it belongs to Brittany Gould, aka Married In Berdichev. Veteran of the incredible Denver art-music scene that also includes amaze-gaze musicians like Hideous Men and Alphabets, Gould has been putting sweet, angelface vocals together with noise and drone for a few years now, but her recent work has touched me in ways few other things have. Melding and multiplying her voice with echoing, noisy electronic loops and static, as well as more recent additions like bells and singing bowls, Gould has taken a concept long mined for harsh vibes and created some of the finest pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Getting my hands on some of this work has proven difficult; much of it is limited-edition cassette releases, and a lot of it is now out of print. This just makes finding each piece more of a joy, though. For an added blast of discordance but equally affecting vocals, you should also listen to her work with Eva Aguila under the name Caldera Lakes. For those looking for more than a taste, you can download her most recent album Readying for free on her bandcamp page. Be ready to fall in love too.

I Need The Sun by Married in Berdichev

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