Contagium, by Olivia Deng for Vanyaland

Western Mass.’ underground music scene rises up — and off the radar

Hawks soar over the miles and miles of sprawling woods, stretches of meadows, and roadside farms that course through Western Massachusetts. The scenery is tranquil and in between the wilderness, vintage stores and coffee shops line the streets of downtown centers. But underground, there is a flourishing DIY music scene that many hardcore and punk bands call home.

Quite literally, bands play basement shows and other make-shift venues.

Speedy Ortiz, Pixies, and Deep Wound all originated from the quieter constellation of cities and towns far west of Boston on the other side of the Bay State. With more space than congested urban centers, lower costs of living, and a tight-knit community, Western Mass.’s underground music scene rises up from below to bring its sounds to audiences.

Urochromes, a punk band based in Hadley and Providence, recently released their full length album Trope House with Brooklyn-based Wharf Cat Records. It is a collection of relentlessly pummeling, unhinged, and reflective songs. Made up of Jackie McDermott and Dick Riddick, the band is known for its experimental sound, even weirder videos, and songwriting techniques with unlikely sources of inspiration. Trope House was born out of a 26-day sleep study McDermott and Riddick participated in at a hospital in Mass. “That’s where I wrote most of the lyrical content of the album and Dick wrote the majority of the music,” says McDermott. “And after both participating in that, we went to New Orleans, Louisiana, for about two months to try and fit together the lyrics I worked on with the music that Dick had written and the album is mostly a result of that.”

The track “Hair So Big,” accompanied by a bombastic, slapstick action movie-inspired video shot by Phil Steiger, was inspired by reading about The Beatles’ time in Hamburg at the beginning of their career. McDermott says he wanted to write a “relatable and not too bitter kind of lost love song” from a place of trying to confront the existential crisis sparked by worrying about his existence in the world outside of the hospital room he stayed at. He adds: “I was kind of, in the record in general, trying to move away from anything being too snotty or bitter or vindictive. It’s still… a short, fast-paced, punk song. I’m looking for a little more self-reflectiveness and not so much bitter but more bittersweet. That’s the direction I’m trying to go in, from bitter to bittersweet.”

McDermott has been living in Western Mass. on and off since 2011. Despite living in a number of different places, like Los Angeles and New York City, he recently moved back to the area, citing affordability as one of the main reasons. “I got a big beautiful room for $200 and it’s the most beautiful place,” he says. “It’s that which makes it a very viable place to live a financially unviable lifestyle and the good people that are here and the history of being a creatively really good place for me.”

In a world where artists are underpaid despite the value they contribute to their communities, rising rents has artists fleeing increasingly expensive, gentrifying cities like Boston. Daniel Shaw, an urban planner who plays in minimalist punk band Landowner from Holyoke, went to UMass Amherst then lived in Seattle before returning to Western Mass.  

“My experience there in Seattle is that it was always an uphill battle to afford being an artist or being a musician,” says Shaw. “You always had to pay an absurd amount of rent to share tiny cramped spaces with way too many people to afford to do it. Same with housing and lots of other things. In Western Massachusetts because it’s not such an expensive place compared to really large gentrifying cities, it is more affordable and I just don’t see the same level of stress here when it comes to renting practice spaces and having space for performing and doing underground and DIY events and culture.”

Shaw described Landowner, formed in 2017, as a band that uses a lot of space and restraints but still projects intensity. “My idea was if the band Antelope were covering Discharge,” he offers. “So Antelope are a really clean, Krautrock-y indie band from Washington, D.C. from a few years ago and Discharge were this driving, distorted political hardcore band from the early ’80s… The idea is if a really thin-sounding restrained band were just reading the sheet music of hardcore songs one note of a time.”

According to Shaw, the space available in Western Mass. enables him and his band to be as loud as they want to be. “I think people can come here because there’s a little more elbow room and there’s a little more space to rock out and be loud if that’s what you’re interested in doing,” he says. “You can just rock out in your basement, whatever genre of music you want.”

The diversity in genres is another draw in the Western Mass. DIY scene. John Gulow, who books shows under Promotorhead Entertainment, and hosts New Hampshire’s Contagium and Boghaunter at Florence venue The 13th Floor, says that there is a wide range of sounds coming from the area. “[There’s] everything from brutal death metal to solo synthwave acts to indie psych bands,” Gulow says. “I don’t believe there is an overall dominant sound for Western Mass. as a whole, but rather little pockets where certain genres seem to pool. Northampton has always had a strong indie scene. Greenfield has several rock and jam bands. Hadley and Amherst have a strong punk and DIY scene. Holyoke, Springfield, and Chicopee have metal and hardcore.”

Jac Walsh, who books shows at Flywheel Arts Collective in Easthampton and plays in Northampton and Boston-based queercore band DUMP HIM says the DIY scene is not as fragmented as other places. “I feel like there’s definitely some folks who just go to psych rock shows and some folks who just go to hardcore shows,” Walsh tells us, “but there’s a lot of people who go to both which is cool.”

Furthermore, all-ages, not-for-profit arts spaces like Flywheel bolsters the scene and helps foster community. “It gives people of all ages a place to go that isn’t a bar or a store or someplace that you’re gonna be spending money. To see art, see music,” Walsh says. “The biggest community contribution is its openness and it’s space. Any sort of space that values community or music or art or people over profit, that’s something that is at the heart of what Flywheel does. It can get tough monetarily but it’s amazing that it exists in 2019.”

So why isn’t everyone moving out here?

That all doesn’t mean the Western Mass. DIY scene is a problem-free utopia. Transportation and going out can be an issue. Despite the relative affordability, musicians struggle to find resources and support from city governments. Bands vie for attention reserved for large touring acts who play at Iron Horse Entertainment Group venues. Additionally, representation for people of color making music needs further work.

Walsh said that getting around in Western Mass. is challenging without a ride or a bike. Cities like Northampton and Amherst where there are colleges have better public transportation access, but the rest, not being densely populated cities, are pretty inaccessible. “Where Flywheel’s located, it’s not on a bus route. It’s not a city, so it’s not really walkable from Northampton to Easthampton… You need a car or you need someone to give you a ride or you need a bike. The bus route isn’t as reliable. Every bus stops going to Flywheel at 6 p.m. so if you don’t have a ride you can’t make it out to a show.”

Gulow said that the fact that Western Mass. cities aren’t as densely populated as Boston poses a challenge for Promotorhead.

“For niche genres like metal or punk, the fans are pretty scattered across wide areas and venues that’ll host those type of shows are few and far between,” Gulow admits. “So people are traveling further to get to and from shows and that’s not always easy or possible for some folks. On one hand, it creates a funnel effect. The venues that do host these shows and solid turn outs and followings. The 13th Floor gets very few people from Florence and Northampton. Instead most of our crowd travels from surrounding towns and counties. Some of our regulars even travel from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.

Gulow continues: “On the other hand, playing the same clubs, to the same people, the scene becomes stagnant at times. Not enough new people in thinly populated areas to come out to replace show regulars who don’t come out as much anymore for whatever reason, usually life. Also, over-saturation definitely becomes a thing. I feel this is one reason why most bands don’t last too long and why the scene has its peaks and valleys.”

Northampton-based folk singer-songwriter Kimaya Diggs says that for independent artists, expenses like practice spaces can be difficult to keep up with and institutional support is not always easy to come by. Diggs notes that because DIY is not within the mainstream framework, it is more difficult to raise funds and get publicity. She adds that there are issues with representation in Northampton’s DIY scene, which is predominantly white.

“There are spaces that do programming that’s a little bit different than the mainstream but they also don’t get the resources that they need or they’re like yeah, we want to book people you don’t usually see, but we can’t pay any of them,” Diggs tells us. “That’s a really tough situation to be in. I’ve been asked so many times, we’re trying to bring more black women into this space we don’t have any money to pay you. I would love to see a place that intentionally is speaking out and booking and collaborating and supporting locally people who are in the margins, so black people, people of color. Spaces that are willing to do the work to find those performers. There are lots of black women in music but they’re in the shadows.”

Furthermore, Shaw points to a disturbing trend of where artists go, money follows. “My experience has been in Seattle specifically, anywhere my band practiced tended to be right at the edge of neighborhoods that were getting kinda fancy,” he says. “It always felt like maybe the hipsters and the artists moving in was one of several signals to the powers that be, hey this could be a hip place to invest in some land build another building and turn another profit and raise rents and all that stuff that end up pushing out long-term residents minding their own business trying to live there.

Shaw adds: “I think there’s value to trying to make an effort to be aware of one’s presence causing gentrification and trying to be involved however you can with the community that’s there and not just use the neighborhood as blank, temporary real estate for you to obliviously do your project when there’s people who really call the place home. A lot of the times those people are historically marginalized people of color who are at risk of getting priced out of where they’re trying to live. In that song “Moving Again,” all of those things get wrapped in.”

Settling down

However, Shaw will not be moving again, at least in the near future. “Something that struck me was how common it is for people my age, a lot of my peers to just constantly be moving. Renting, getting kicked out because the landlord’s selling the building, having to move somewhere else, or following employment opportunities or getting an education and just moving from city to city as well. Moving within a city or moving across the country, across the world,” he says. “It takes years to find good friends and a true sense of belonging in a new place. It’s really easy, if you’re chronically moving, to develop shallow roots and not have an emotional connection to the place where you live. The results can be using the place like a temporary empty shell where you can do your artists thing maybe but you don’t have a lot of investment in the place. ”

Shaw wants to develop roots in Western Mass. and keep playing punk music. “A place that’s a little quieter but isn’t dead either is a nice middle-of-the-road sweet spot,” he admits. “You can get people’s attention but there’s still cultural relevance and music happening too. I had a really great experience the last few years being involved in a place like Western Mass. Playing hardcore or punk music the release of tension …is really healthy. I really think it’s interesting to perform intensity, to project intensity on people, to make a lot of eye contact while performing and get people to really pay attention and feel like the music is waking you up and fast. I think that the craziness of the world we live in politically and the crap we all put up with in this world we’re carrying  around restrained anxious feelings a lot of the time and subverting that into something that’s expressive and is art keeps me from being depressed. [It’s] an explosive display that can inspire people and be really interesting.”

For McDermott, he keeps coming back to Western Mass. There’s Feeding Tube Records in Northampton that put out a record for Urochromes, people starting their own tape labels, and space to play and be creative. “It’s always been a super supportive place for making music and booking shows and with a lot of quiet geniuses around doing really incredible stuff… I’ve moved away a number of times but I keep coming back. I think that really speaks to how good of a place it has been to me creatively.”

Follow Olivia Deng on Twitter @oliviadeng1.