A few weeks ago, Tampa prodigies Merchandise played a series of sold out shows in New York, the largest of which took place at metal haven Saint Vitus in Greenpoint. Before the 10-minute critically acclaimed track, “Become What you Are,” (in my demo version titled, “Become What you Are / What’s to Become of You,”) frontman Carson Cox introduces the song with the exclamation: “This is about how impossible it is to find identity with music. It’s a really shallow thing.” For most of us trapped in “a sea of New Yorkers / all trying to play the part of celebrity,” this is a harsh reality—until the realization that separating identity from the formation of a community is possible. This is a hard lesson to learn, but it appears Western Massachusetts has figured it out.
I set off to explore the music Mecca myself last Saturday, hopping on an early afternoon bus after the gracious (not to mention, extremely talented) band Psychic Blood, real red- blooded Massachusettsians, offered to host me and two friends. Arriving outside a Target adjoined to a mall, PB drummer Eric Outhuse welcomed me in a mini van, bringing us directly to Jason Vachula’s home in Northampton–front man of Psychic Blood and roommates with half of the hardcore band Hoax. After devouring Mexican food at La Veracruzana, and rushing to buy beers (other than being absolutely gorgeous and flooded with independent businesses and autumnal foliage, western Mass faces weirdly strict liquor/beer laws.) We grabbed a 20 pack of “Point’s NUDE BEACH” beer (selected in honor of our New York brethren) and a fifth of Jack, we proceeded back to Jason’s to chug our purchases. Disclaimer: If you’ve ever had Nude Beach© beer, blend an unbuttered biscuit and you’ll get the jist. Continue with whiskey and let the banter unfold. Mix the two (really, any beer and any whiskey) and the result is my unofficially patented cocktail, “Bathroom Sex” (named because it’s dirty and gross—but it gets the job done.) After a few too many “specialty” cocktails and the conversation that resulted- -the choice quote “It’s like yeast… yeast—it’s Viagra for bread,” from bassist Girshwin Chapdelaine comes to mind–and after a few “bowls” of Jameson, we set off.
Our game plan was to see a few unknown bands from Cleveland sandwiched in between the incredible Feeble Minds act Twerps (clear your Australian indie pop mind and stream the delightfully profane “I’m Stupid” E.P.) and Ratzinger, named after our current Pope and made up of many of tenants of Rowhouse, the house venue where the show took place.
Entering the Rowhouse was not unlike any other house show. The living room was littered with what were improbably old couches paired with a dirty, barren floor. The Rowhouse is very much a punk house, but with one crucial exception—it lacked any semblance of intimidation. I walked into a stranger’s living room saying, “Hey, I’m Maria, visiting from New York. How’s it going?” was met with hugs from people I’ve never met and swigs of beers from even stranger personalities. This was, indeed, a welcomed environment (I later found out that the first individual I met was Timmy Rohan, the former drummer of Hoax—which gives a sense oh how immediate the community is).
Contrary to popular belief, Northampton does not run of punk time. We, after drinking the aforementioned “bathroom sex,” were forced to head out around 8/8:30 to Holyoke, an adjacent town, and barely made it in time for Twerps—the band most of us outside of Northampton are probably most familiar with. Their set was nothing short of incredible, ending with Eric from Psychic Blood informing me that a few of the members from the band are moving to Boston—quite possibly making the show I witnessed their last ever.
Intimately familiar with the sonic aggression behind Twerps’ M.O. and not at all with their appearance, it was later described to me as a new addition to frontman Jack Barrett’s aesthetic. The gent, who currently epitomizes a non-racist skinhead frontman, complete with leather, shaved head, and frighteningly intense stage presence used to have long hair – impossible to believe.
After the set I had a chance to talk to Jack, who told me he lives at Damage, the recently opened record store. After missing a few electric bills the store lost its power, which is why this particular show, originally scheduled to take place at the record store, was moved to the Rowhouse. Damage, for those lucky enough to even pass by its doors, is run out of the garage of a beautifully rustic green building—completely colonial and impossible to find if it weren’t for the small white sign above its doors. All of Twerps call the establishment home. But after the electricity blew out, and the show was moved, a five hour bus ride couldn’t open the store—until talking to Jack who answered with “Oh, I’ll leave the door unlocked for you.” This, my friends, is the difference between your community, my community, and Western Mass’—the insularity breeds respect and trust. It’s rare that I leave my bedroom door unlocked. And though we never had the opportunity to see if this trust was applied in the sobriety of the daylight hours, it was still a statement I fear few ever get the chance to hear.
Everyone seemed to know each other there—no one was a stranger both figuratively and literally (except, of course, myself, my two travel companions, and the terrible Cleveland bands that will go unmentioned. Take this as a word of advice Cleveland: if your band is well into their 20s, your groupies drink individual containers of boxed wine and you, for the love of god, still think pig squeals are still the greatest sound the human throat can conjure up, stop while you’re ahead.) Anytime I met a person, someone would say “Oh yeah, that’s (insert name) from (insert nearby town.)” Jesse, frontman of Hoax, greeted me with a simple, “How are you enjoying Northampton?” Before I could dictate a statement, I heard myself mouthing, “I never want to leave.” And he: “Exactly.” Twice folks asked for my last name because we buy tapes from the same people. If music community is based on knowledge, these motherfuckers are on their third doctorates.
The rest of the evening remains quite blurry. We split up, there were some drunken playground adventures, and I stole a pumpkin. 'Tis the season, after all.
The next morning we woke up at a surprisingly timely hour. After rolling around in the comfort of Jason’s brown leather bachelor pad of a couch we headed to breakfast where—after eating our body weight in kale, eggs, pancakes and cornbread (not to mention unlimited coffee, shout out to waitress Julie who was more than friendly—by the end of brunch I wanted to hug her,) Eric informed me that the legendary Feeding Tube Record store was right down the street.
Much like the house show the evening before (but without the crowd) Feeding Tube, regardless of legacy, lacked the all too familiar arrogant ambience that goes along with record shopping. Easily the only time I’ve made a joke aloud in a record store that was met with an equally comical response by a record store clerk (“We should book Whitehouse and only Whitehouse. Five hours of Whitehouse at CMJ.” “Five hours of Whitehouse… that will go over well. Is that a test?”) The dude even asked about my radio show and shared a Roky Erickson bootleg with us. There were no judgments made when I purchased an early Magick Marker 12” and an LP by locals Potty Mouth (who were in attendance at the show the previous night… getting the sense of the voluntary insularity?)
Moments later we met up with Girshwin and drove past Atkins, MA, later described as a “tourist trap,” straight to Mount Norwottuck, which we began to climb. As a New Yorker, the last thing I had to climb were the stairs to my stoop. Mount Norwottuck tops at 1,106 feet above sea level. It should go without saying that Jason wanted to be a park ranger as a child because I’ve never seen a dude climb with such ease (he was even carrying a coffee cup!) The first mountain I’ve ever reached the summit and quite possibly the last, we left Mt. Norwottuck but not before visiting the Horse Caves and waiting for a lost adolescent (Sam) to find his dad (dude vibrating stones and slugs with his booming cries.)
On our journey down it began to rain. The sun shone through the trees and for a moment the sound of water fell with the intensity of an active creek or a waterfall. We walked over logs and on top of makeshift bridges. We made jokes of pop punk childhoods and gameboys. It was the sort of situation a city kid can only dream about.
Immediately afterwards we swung by the Atkins farmer's market and bought cider donuts before heading back to Jason’s for beers. His home is located shockingly close to the Roost, a fantastically artisan café that, unsurprisingly, Jeff Poleon from Twerps works at (and is also known to be a hot spot for Sebadoh founder Eric Gaffney—though we did not see him.)
The rest of the evening consisted of consuming a million more beers, meeting the rest of Hoax, and watching Navajo Joe, the spaghetti western that apparently Kill Bill ripped it’s soundtrack from, followed by a million more beers, episodes of Beavis and Butthead and the harsh realization that 90% of all of our humor stems from “Dillweed” insults.
When I set out to Western Massachusetts, I thought I’d come back with a fully-grown scene study—that was total arrogance on my behalf. This place is full of characters, all friendly and talented in their own regard, dedicating to making the sort of music that challenges and progresses the mundane. So when I quote Carson Cox, I quote individual fallacy with the bohemia kids who live in metropolises dream up—truly it is in places like Northampton that we find idiosyncratic beauty. I cannot wait to go back.
***Psychic Blood left me with a sonic youth biography, a bouquet of flowers, and the promise to come by anytime. Seriously!