Inside Tempe's Underground House Show Scene

Getting up close and personal with Dirty Dallas from Exxxtra Crispy.
Getting up close and personal with Dirty Dallas from Exxxtra Crispy. Tanner Stechnij
The exterior walls of a tan stucco house rattle with sounds it can barely contain. If the next-door neighbors were in their yard, they could make out a few instruments and recognize the genre of music — something loud. Two doors down, you might hear the depths of a bass or the ting of a hi-hat. Beyond that, an avid listener might catch the low buzz of sounds, an occasional rowdy house guest, or nothing at all in this central Tempe neighborhood. It’s past 8 p.m., and the first band has just started.

Throughout the night, guests file into the slender backyard of the home, known as Tobacco Row. They hand $5 to Kenneth Kite, a pale man with long, black hair. He’s tonight’s host, which is why he’s collecting cash to divvy up among the acts playing based on who needs funds to get to their next show. Tonight, it’s Snailmate, who are celebrating the release of their latest EP and kicking off a tour.

Space is tight and things move fast at Tobacco Row, where bands play quick 30-minute sets. Earplug-wearing attendees slip in and out of the sliding door to take cigarette breaks, get fresh air, or escape the intense volume.
Nearly every weekend, the underground music scene in Tempe bustles with small bands playing even smaller places. Typical houses in otherwise ordinary neighborhoods are transformed into venues for some of the loudest, grungiest, and best-known local bands for one night at a time. Established acts like AJJ and Injury Reserve have passed the torch to up-and-comers like Go Outside, Mama Butane, and The Psychedelephants. And newcomer hosts including Kite, Amp ASU, and Small Talk Collective are starting to make their mark.

But the appeal of a house show is more than just the music. Some people come to network, speak to like-minded individuals, drink beers with buddies, and support local artists. For others, it’s a fashion opportunity and a chance to see and be seen in alternative evening wear. Minors can hear bands who tend to play bars they can’t get into.

Perhaps most importantly, house shows serve as an escape from a long week or social situations that limit self-expression. Which is why there’s a set of universally accepted rules to ensure that the shows serve as safe places for everyone.

1. Don’t take anything that isn’t yours.
2. Stay for all of the bands.
3. Drink responsibly.
4. Keep your hands to yourself.
5. And always, always BYOB.

click to enlarge Michael Madrid of James Band saved this face for an intimate crowd at The Sunroom. - TANNER STECHNIJ
Michael Madrid of James Band saved this face for an intimate crowd at The Sunroom.
Tanner Stechnij
House shows are a long-standing tradition in the punk-rock scene, dating back to dark East Coast basements in the late 1970s. In more recent decades, such scenes have popped up around college campuses like Arizona State University, which is why Tempe has a relatively entrenched tradition of house shows.

In the past couple of years, Injury Reserve have gone from Tempe living rooms to critical darlings of the blogosphere. They still meet up with friends and play in houses when they’re in town.

Shows are curated by hosts, who are usually members of bands. And all genres are fair game. Drop the idea that these are all garage bands — lo-fi is a more appropriate unifier. You’ll find shows featuring hip-hop, indie rock, punk, and some that offer a smorgasbord of sounds with little rhyme or reason.

Kite, who’s the singer and guitarist of Mama Butane, throws shows nearly every week. In the community, his house is known as Tobacco Row, thanks to the cigarette butts that littered the backyard of his last house. At his new house, located near Rural and Baseline roads, most of the cigarettes make it into the ashtray, but he kept the name anyway.

“I started having house shows to play more gigs,” Kite says. “I didn’t want to play bar shows because a lot of my friends couldn’t come and I wanted to give touring bands the opportunity to make a little money while they’re in town.”

Kite’s house is one of the most consistent spots for shows in Tempe. Turnout varies from night to night, often based on how much the bands playing promote the event, something that mostly happens via Facebook.

At Tobacco Row, bands play in the kitchen and dining room area, which, aside from a few bar stools, is stripped of furniture at all times. Bodies fill up the rest of the space, sometimes spilling into adjacent hallways and the living room, where you’ll likely find someone trying to get away from the noise and the cigarette smoke that lingers outside.

click to enlarge An impassioned house show attendee sways with a lighter. - TANNER STECHNIJ
An impassioned house show attendee sways with a lighter.
Tanner Stechnij
Each house has its own personality. Located near University and Mill avenues, The Sunroom features projections that interact with the music, courtesy of ASU digital culture major Andrew Robinson, who lives at the house with roommates.

“My projections are audio-reactive and usually will do more crazy stuff the louder the band is,” Robinson says. “It adds a lot to the atmosphere of our shows and makes us look more professional than we are.”

The Sunroom is an older house with narrow hallways and a tight living room. Some nights, dozens cram into the space throwing elbows, moshing, and dancing along to the band playing the main room. Nothing separates the band from the attendees, leaving ample room for interaction. It adds an element of intimacy and connectedness.

Predicting where shows might be isn’t always easy. After all, these events are being held in people’s houses. So things can change week to week depending on workloads, roommate concerns, or complaints from neighbors. It’s also why specific addresses aren’t exactly shouted from the rooftops. Hosting shows can come with risks — tickets, evictions, and broken personal items. To split up the responsibilities, people form collectives.

Collectives serve many purposes in the house show circle, but their most important jobs are to schedule shows and get people into the events. Small Talk Collective, The Cannibal Collective, Warped Your Records, and Amp ASU are all groups that work to enrich the scene. They use Facebook to communicate with people and to share upcoming events. Keeping tabs on these groups is the best way to find out who’s playing where.

They also work to bring more multimedia elements into the house shows. It isn’t uncommon to attend a house show that has poetry readings, short film debuts, or paintings hung up.

The current house show scene in Tempe owes some respect to The Underground Foundation (TUF), which helped to establish many of the lasting connections in the community. TUF was created in 2010 and brought together a group of students interested in the local art community who wanted to showcase musicians, poets, and visual artists of various disciplines. TUF folded at the beginning of 2018 and made way for Amp ASU, which serves the same purpose, with a focus on inclusivity.

click to enlarge At Tobacco Row, dishes pile up — the mark of a good house. - TANNER STECHNIJ
At Tobacco Row, dishes pile up — the mark of a good house.
Tanner Stechnij
Amp ASU is different from other collectives because they’re a sponsored club at Arizona State University. Treasurer Ricky Arnold says that Amp ASU has access to resources that individuals can’t get as easily.

“What people need to know about AMP is that it is centered more so around students, but because of our university we have access to a lot of resources, information, and funding that other people might not,” Arnold says. “We’re trying to become a bit more professional when it comes to equipment and booking.”

Amp ASU meets every Wednesday at 8 p.m. in room 250 of the Discovery Hall, 250 East Lemon Street, on ASU Tempe campus. At meetings, members network and discuss upcoming events and ways to promote growth of the underground culture.

Arnold says that the most important part of attending house shows is giving everyone the respect they deserve.

“The one thing that someone should realize about a house show is that it is actually someone’s home,” Arnold says. “This requires an extra element of care and respect for the space, as well as the neighbors, but should make people feel at home themselves.”

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