When we met recently at Tempe Farmers Market, Briannin Gross seemed truly self-assured. In recent years, Gross (who uses the pronouns "they/them") headed up Mutiny Phoenix, a local "anti-authoritarian event/political organization." More recently, they've been focused on building up The Coven, Mutiny’s "first venue, like Stateside [Presents] is to Crescent Ballroom."
But as Gross admits, they weren't always a "steamroller" in the local arts scene.
"I really came from nowhere until 2015," they say. "I was living in the suburbs, working 9 to 5 every day." Until they joined the "Maple - Ash - Farmer - Wilson Neighborhood" Facebook group and saw the scope of Tempe’s DIY scene. Gross linked up with fellow multi-hyphenate Josh Smusz in 2016, and together they booked a slew of dance and theme nights under Mutiny’s banner.
Gross took over operations when Smusz moved away in February 2017, but not before he'd planted an idea that became the heart of The Coven.
"He always said we should get a house that we can constantly run parties, and we also really have to engage with the younger crowd," they say. "For three years, I have been trying to do [that]."
Gross says they were "lucky that I was able to do it right up the street," referring to a house near downtown Tempe that served as The Coven’s home for its debut, a massive 2019 Halloween shindig. That night was as much a raucous party as a declaration of intent.
"House parties and shows have gotten cracked down in the past three years," Gross says. "I wanted to have a pretense to start a new era. I think it's time for the cops to give up. Now's the time to get back up on the horse and get those shows back."
Gross and The Coven team — Xayla Doll (of the band Doll), Deep Hell's Sam Kitrel, and artist Vahla — are using Coven to reinvigorate the Valley’s DIY scene, one aligned with their ideals of openness and spontaneity. Gross recognizes the value of spaces like Trunk Space and The Lunchbox, but thinks more should be done.
"When I say DIY, I mean [places] accessible for local bands that are starting," they say. "If we don't have those places, and the only thing you have is pay to play or you [rent it out] for $1,000, that's not how you have a scene. That's how you have the same old people playing to the same old people for 20 years."
Above all else, Gross says some venues aren’t being inclusive enough to queer and trans people. While they say a "storm has cleared" and the city's creative spaces are making an effort, folks are still being left out.
"A thing with queer people: Anybody that's not cis gay or cis lesbian, everybody stays home," they say. "I am trying to push the narrative of invade straight spaces, invade cis gay spaces, invade anywhere where you feel like you don't normally belong."
Gross is ultimately helping others while fulfilling Smusz's vision to empower a whole new generation. If that also makes good business sense, then all the better.
"There's a whole new thing with the Zoomers turning 21," they say. "[They’re] way more accepting of their sexuality and their gender is taking on its own definitions and fashions and culture. If you don't have a place to go when you're that age, you're never going to go out. So the more house shows, the more DIY venues, the more we'll grow the scene."
Gross continues, "Mutiny is like 'meet, drink, collaborate.' And the only way you're going to do that is if you're in social situations, having fun with people, and chaos and entropy bring you together."
Yet Gross admits that not everyone wants to do "after-party plus after-party," which is why Coven organizes events like a trans Thanksgiving and other low-key gatherings.
If anything is hampering the collective's momentum, it's that Coven is currently without a proper space; Gross has been throwing Valley-wide "guerrilla" shows since late January. They don't blame their former "house," citing a misalignment of objectives. Gross and the others hope to find a permanent space in July or August.
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"It has to be either here in central downtown Tempe or in the central Phoenix area," they say. "That's one of my big issues as a promoter, the accessibility of it."
That doesn't mean the search hasn't been an ordeal, and Gross hates "not having a solid place." But this entire journey, from the Phoenix suburbs to the house shows of central Tempe, has been a worthy endeavor. Gross has helped plenty of young queer and trans kids, many who are "participating and getting partners and making friends." But it's also been a chance to celebrate what's already great about Phoenix: a sense of discovery.
"I keep meeting new people and groups and little cultures that were right behind my back," they say. "It's like a kaleidoscope. There are a million of these things facing opposite to each other. You just have to keep going in that spiral and find them."
The Coven has several pop-up events planned throughout the spring. For more information, follow The Coven's Facebook page.