- Sam Sycamore
Impose Magazine feature article
From 2012 to 2015, I freelanced as a music journalist and was very active in the local music scene in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
I approached Impose Magazine in late 2013 to pitch a feature article about some of my favorite bands from the city at that time. The editors agreed with my judgement that these local acts deserved wider recognition.
I interviewed members of each of the bands very casually to pull together a slice-of-life style piece exploring the unique topography of the local scene. I wanted the reader to feel like they were a member of my community, standing on the sidewalk with me outside of a vintage clothing store, eating tacos from a food truck, shooting the breeze with some local musicians we admire.
I also collaborated with local photographer Michael Powell for many of the photos that accompanied the piece, but as I write this retrospective in 2022, those photos are nowhere to be found online. 😭
Read the full text below:
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Louisville’s underground music scene is alive and well in the Derby City. While it’s exceedingly rare to catch an all-ages show at a punk house these days, Louisville musicians are especially crafty when it comes to organizing events at nontraditional venues – see recent concerts at gardening supply warehouse Fresh Start or the Cropped Out Festival’s takeover of The American Turners Club on the waterfront - originally a training facility for German immigrant gymnasts.
Things were looking grim for Louisville in 2011 when local brick-and-mortar record store Ear X-tacy, once a major focal point of the scene, shut down after over 25 years in business. But the years since have seen a resurgence of both independent record stores and small- to medium-sized venues, and the scene seems to have proven its resilience through the roaring success that was Cropped Out’s 2013 installment back in September.
I caught up with representatives from a few of my favorite bands in Louisville to find out who they’re digging around town and what we can expect from them in the coming year.
Though I had already seen them more times than I could remember in the year since they had begun playing shows, Louisville’s premier garage-punk trio White Reaper were nonetheless one of the bands who I was most excited to see at last year’s Cropped Out Festival.
White Reaper’s three members – singer/guitarist Anthony Esposito and the rhythm section of identical twins Nick and Sam Wilkerson – are thick as thieves, and have played together in countless different arrangements over the years. Their self-released 2013 single “Conspirator” b/w “The Cut” best demonstrates the immediacy of their breakneck live sets – one listen and you feel as though you know every one of Esposito’s crunchy guitar riffs and melodic hooks by heart.
What was the coolest band you saw at Cropped Out this year?
Esposito: Cropped Out was perfect as always, The Endtables were great, and Tyvek was incredible. Endless Boogie and Skimask are tied for the coolest set.
If you could bring any band to Louisville, who would it be?
We were on tour when Milk Music came to town, and I'm pretty torn up about it. I really want to see Kadavar, too.
Who are some of your favorite local bands in town right now?
Obviously the great live guys: Anwar Sadat, Mote [full disclosure: this writer is a member of Mote]. Weird Girl are always fun, and on top of that they're close friends and good guys. Also Blood Planet just keeps getting better and better.
What's the plan for White Reaper in 2014? Full-length record? Touring?
We've been working pretty hard on a lot of things. We've got a ton of new music and we're gonna tour as much as we can, in places we haven't been yet. I can't say anything for certain but we'd love to put out a record this year.
Do you ever accidentally mix up Sam and Nick? Or do you keep up with their haircuts and wardrobes?
It used to happen all the time when we were younger, because we were always together. Every time I mixed them up, I felt awful. Like, I was their best friend and I just called Sam "Nick!" I felt like I was letting them down. Couldn't imagine Sam growing his hair out like Nick does, though.
How much of a bummer is it to be under age in a town where all-ages/18+ shows basically don't exist?
It's a huge bummer. It's always in the way. I want to see Perfect Pussy later this month but I don't know if they'll let me in!
White Reaper aren’t the only underage stars of the scene – indeed, it’s impossible to have a conversation about prodigious young talent in Louisville without mention of The Debauchees. Much ado is made about the fact that these kids had no clue how to play their instruments when they formed the band in high school a couple years ago, which, among other things, makes bassist Ashley Bowen’s spidery bass lines all the more impressive. The group’s bubbly post-punk/new-wave sound often garners comparisons to much older bands that the members will openly admit to knowing next to nothing about.
The Debauchees are thoroughly unpretentious anti-rock stars; the last time I saw them perform, at the release party for their debut record Big Machines and Peculiar Beings (via sonaBLAST! Records), I got the impression that every member of the packed audience was just dying to hug singer Sydney Chadwick after the show. And though all three tend to be pretty quiet and modest in public, Bowen comes off as the most outspoken.
Who are your favorite bands in town at the moment?
Bowen: My favorite bands in town are Sweatermeat and Nerves Junior and Dead Tree Models and The Pass. Blood Planet as well. White Reaper. Oh man, I could go on for hours.
We are really good friends with Dead Tree Models. We have been playing with them for a long time. Plus they write great music. Nerves Junior has helped us out a lot. They're really great dudes to know. And they're all such great artists.
Do you think that Louisville and its music scene have shaped the sound of your band in some way?
Honestly I can't say that Louisville has really shaped the sound of the band, but once we started playing we really got into the local scene and it's definitely a place we call home. For a while before we started the band it was just a place where we lived, but Louisville is a beautiful city with lots to do and a great music scene and I would come back if I left. I love this city.
Louisville has recently seen a resurgence of mom & pop record shops. Which is your favorite?
I don't know which is my favorite record store. There's a lot we haven't been to but I love Guestroom Records. I found the entirety of Fugazi there and that was all I needed to verify how great it is.
What's the best local show you've attended recently?
Sweatermeat played a show at Nelligan Hall recently and it was beautiful. Also Thunder/Dreamer from Evansville, IN were incredible at the show they played with Weird Girl, Comforter and Mote the other night.
What's in store for The Debauchees in 2014?
I have no idea what's in store for us. I guess we will figure it out. Maybe a tour. I hope so. I'd like to go everywhere.
If you want to get to the bottom of what the improvisational scuzz-punk trio Tropical Trash are all about, you could do worse than to peruse the carefully curated bins at Astro Black Records, owned by TT frontman Jim Marlowe. Once relegated to a glorified closet in the back of a hip coffee shop, Astro Black now shares a significantly more legitimate space with the oddball, odds-and-ends thrift store Fat Rabbit, which is run by drummer Jeff Komara. And seeing as how the store boasts a dedicated section exclusively for Sophomore Lounge releases (likely the first of its kind in the entire known universe), it makes perfect sense that Tropical Trash recently picked up SL head honcho Ryan Davis (who also runs Cropped Out with James Ardery) as their new bassist. Sophomore Lounge was responsible for releasing 2013’s excellent Think Back Kick A Beer, the band’s second seven-inch record in as many years.
In addition to Astro Black, Marlowe also dabbles in releasing music through his tape label Loin Seepage, which shines a spotlight on Louisville’s oft-overlooked noise/improvisational scene.
Do you have any big plans for Loin Seepage in 2014?
Marlowe: Yes! I’m going to be doing roughly one tape a month for the rest of the year starting in January with Black Kaspar’s Schizo Tech, then February is a Raw Thug reissue of Sugar Pills originally on Bezoar Formations, March is a Tropical Trash tape of us doing our caveman versions of Terry Riley and Rhys Chatham pieces, and a Michael Zerang/Douglas Lucas/Aaron West improv recorded in Chicago at Myopic Books. Later on is an Ut Gret reissue (I think…) from 1984 (!) with Eugene Chadbourne and Henry Kaiser. Eventually another one from Raw Thug and Darin Gray (of Dazzling Killmen, Chikamorachi) playing at the Louisville Experimental Festival from last year and a bunch more that I’m still working on.
Louisville has such an incredibly interesting and varied history of brilliant musicianship, especially when you consider that most people here in our own town have historically not given a single shit about 99.9% of it (which is pretty standard, I think). Crappy Nightmareville, Antman, The Web, Ut Gret, Circle X (some of the earliest American free improvisors! for real!) and seriously so many more it’s just staggering. It’s awesome to see The Endtables’ stuff reaching more folks in the last years. Noise Pollution’s Bold Beginnings comp of early Louisville punk stuff is pretty unbeatable too. We have great music and inspiring, beautiful people here, what more could you want?
What's the best show you've attended recently in Louisville?
One of my favorites was at Greenhaus with Glenn Jones of Cul De Sac, Nathan Salsburg and Nathan Bowles of Pelt and Black Twig Pickers doing their respective things. Greenhaus is one of the best small/intimate show spaces in town, always an extremely pleasant experience. Like having a show in your living room except that the chair you’re sitting on is for sale. A+ for great beers.
If you could bring any currently active band/musician to town, who would it be?
I’m actually working on helping to bring some folks to town in late spring who are some of my favorite musicians ever. Not trying to be cryptic but I can’t really say anything about it just yet, hopefully it all works out. Anthony Braxton is someone I’ve always wanted to have play here (needless to say it’s not him).
It’s really hard to bring in musicians and artists in Louisville as the arts funding is simply nonexistent for things that aren’t big name money makers (if it is and I somehow just don’t know about it feel free to get in touch – bring your checkbook). Which is what makes our rare bird of paradise Cropped Out even more special: they don’t get a fat check from the university – or anyone, for that matter – to make it happen. DIY or DIE here in Louisville, just like most third-tier American cities. Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and Land of Tomorrow are the exceptions on a larger, culturally accepted level that has shit that’s worth seeing. I’m definitely not bitter, just real talk. I’d rather see something in a basement anyway.
Do you have any other musical projects aside from Tropical Trash?
Not really. Sometimes I play baritone sax with Douglas Lucas and Thaniel Ion Lee. Louisville’s best mutant party band Juanita has let me come and jam with them a couple times which is awesome. I like to keep my commitments to a minimum, improves the quality of life.
What's the best record/tape you've got in stock at Astro Black currently?
I really love the Cherry Blossoms live one on RRRecords. The Dream Eye Color Wheel one is pretty great too, real lush wide sounds.
Aside from nationally recognized contemporary artists like My Morning Jacket and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Louisville is perhaps best known for its abrasive post-rock/punk/hardcore scene of the ‘90s, typified by pioneers like Slint, Rodan, and the like – they don’t call it “The Louisville Sound” for nothing. And while there are plenty of bands who carry on that longstanding local tradition, few do it quite as well as Anwar Sadat.
Listening to their fantastic – if brief – debut LP Gold (released last winter through Sophomore Lounge), I’m reminded most of the atonal fury of Crain’s 1990 record Speed, only trimmed down and condensed to its most essential elements. Singer Shane Simms sounds equally comfortable howling or whispering about politics, society, and the trivial nature of both over anxiety-inducing musical backdrops. It makes sense, then, that the group was pegged to open for Death Grips when they came to town over the summer.
What was it like opening for Death Grips? I talked to William (Carpenter, Anwar Sadat’s drummer) not long after and he seemed pretty down about the whole experience.
Simms: I think we were all just kinda bummed on our performance, 'cause my amp head was fucking up and I had to run bass through the venue's sound system, which kind of neutered it. The audience probably didn't have any qualms with it, or even noticed anything we were nit-picking about, but y'know, you're your own worst critic. I had a fun time though; it was just cool to play and then see one of my favorite new bands perform for free.
How did the Halloween tour with White Reaper go?
It went well. To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of touring, for many reasons; but the White Reaper dudes are just fucking cool. It was probably the funnest time I've had on the road. I think spending most of an entire day at Pinball Pete's (in Ann Arbor, MI.) playing Golden Axe 2 was pretty rad, and definitely a weird moment of Zen for everyone involved.
Who are your favorite local bands at the moment?
Seidr, Weird Girl, Tropical Trash, White Reaper, Neighbor. These are just the ones I've listened to the most though. There's so many great bands in Louisville, it's kind of insane.
What are Anwar Sadat's plans for 2014?
We plan on releasing a four-song EP sometime in the spring, and then I guess we'll tour. We're in the process of writing more songs though, which is what I'm most excited about.
Given Louisville’s (questionable) designation as a “southern” city, it may surprise some that there isn’t more twang in the local flavor of DIY music. That could be because nobody wants to go toe-to-toe with local troubadour Jonathan Glen Wood, who heads the hypnotic, psychedelic blues band Old Baby (which also features Evan Patterson of Young Widows/Jaye Jayle and Todd Cook, formerly of Shipping News). The band’s sophomore effort Love Hangover, released in the fall via Karate Body Records, isn’t exactly a concept album, but most of its eight songs are thematically linked through images of sex and lust set to menacing, dirge-like slow-burners.
In addition to Old Baby and his backing role in Jaye Jayle, Wood co-hosts the show Mind Crimes on Louisville’s new radio station ARTxFM alongside the aforementioned Patterson.
Have you and Evan done many DJ gigs around town as Mind Crimes? How did you get involved with ARTxFM?
Wood: Mind Crimes actually started with Evan and I somehow landing a weekly DJ gig at a club in town, Meat. I knew the owner and he knew I collected records. I assured him we would fit with the vibe of the club. That gig was great. We were playing a lot of obscure, heavy rock, blues and world music to folks who probably expected contemporary radio hits. Evan had been helping ARTxFM here and there all the while. When Meat closed, ARTxFM started streaming and we got a Friday night slot there.
I heard that you're looking to play some solo sets in the near future. Have you done many solo shows in the past?
Before Old Baby, I played out a bit on my own. Mostly just voice and acoustic guitar. I always enjoyed the craft of songwriting and was always quite obsessed with Catherine Irwin, Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams. Lately, tones have moved me more than words. I've played guitar synthesizer a bit this year and really enjoy it. The handful of live shows I've played recently marry the two ideas. I'm building a bridge between folk songs and synth textures.
What's the best local show you've attended recently?
There was a benefit for Steve "Chili" Rigot, who is the singer of The Endtables, at Headliners just a few weeks back. Lots of great bands played in support, but one of the best things I've seen this year was Grayson Hall's performance that night. They used to be the classic Louisville band Pure Jesus, but have recently reunited and changed their name. Their set was electrifying. This is the second time I've seen them this year and their first reunited show, an acoustic house concert, was my other favorite live music moment this year. Let's hope they keep on keepin' on!
What is the plan for Old Baby in 2014?
We're hunkered down, writing songs and planning a new recording this year. We've all been busy with other projects in the last few months. I think we're all stoked to reel everything in and have time to focus on Old Baby. We're playing a few shows with Pontiak in February. We're hashing out some different ideas, musically. The way we experience music is always changing, so I'd like that to be reflected in our new songs. I like musical progression. We want to cover new ground.
Who are your favorite people to play music with in Louisville?
I've gotten really lucky to share creative space with a lot of great folks over the last few years. A handful of those folks have changed the course of my life. Lowe Sutherland, Evan Patterson, Dane Waters and Catherine Irwin have all taught me there are no walls or boundaries. We can travel as far as we desire. We sometimes just have to step outside of what we think we know and just listen.