House shows are back and the Kalamazoo music scene takes seriously the need to keep them safe

'Some people go to church, I go to house shows.' — Graham Strzynski
What does the Kalamazoo house show music scene look like now, after almost two years of the COVID-19 pandemic? As of fall 2021, young folks began packing into these drafty but welcoming historic Kalamazoo houses after being long denied any sort of party atmosphere. 

Are the house shows any fun? Do people even attend? Most importantly, are the shows safe? To be certain, I grabbed a couple of my fully vaccinated friends and attended three different Kalamazoo house shows in the month of November, two indoor at The Runoff and Xanadu, and one outdoors at Nimblewill Cooperative.

During the first year of lockdown, a lot of local bands in Kalamazoo performed virtually. Projects like Motherhouse, a music marketing collaboration between Dynamic Sound Service Mastering and Hemlock Media Co., began using their platform to promote local acts by helping them record ambient sessions in outdoor spaces. Another project, Waterloo, helped promote local Kalamazoo music by hosting virtual shows through its Twitch account. 

As someone who had played a lot of house shows before the pandemic, I was very interested to see what the experience would be like after such a long hiatus. I never thought I would miss lying on a dirty basement floor fanning myself with a paper plate in 100-degree weather during an early August show, or watching my breath steam into the air as I sang at one January show with no heat, but after attending the new shows in November 2021, I found I did. 

Grappa performs before a packed house at Xanadu.Garret Yates, who has been in Kalamazoo for three years, and his wife Rachel, started Milwood neighborhood house show venue The Runoff in fall 2021. Yates is one-half of the local sludge metal band Bronson Arm. The venue is the garage space at their new home, and as we talk over Zoom, I can hear their dogs Echo, Bowie, and Penelope, as well as Garrett's kids playing in the background. 

Yates smoothes his beard, looks off-camera, and thinks for a moment when I ask how he keeps people safe at the shows. “If you aren’t feeling well, don’t come,” he says simply, and suggests being masked if not fully vaccinated. This is definitely a more neutral approach than Graham Strzynski, who runs the shows at Vine neighborhood venue Xanadu, and helps out with social media and booking for a Vine staple, The Glowhouse. 

That is not to say my friends and I did not feel safe when we saw psych-rock solo act Mike Falling at The Runoff. It was quite the opposite, actually. It seemed that everyone in the small crowd had come with either their roommates or close friends, and there was enough space in the airy garage for some social distancing. I chose to wear a mask at each of the shows we attended, but that is more for personal health reasons than feeling unsafe. 

Strzynski’s tone became very serious when I asked him the same question I had asked Yates. “Honestly, safety is the biggest and hardest part of my job,” says Strzynski through the phone as he traveled with a friend to a DIY local music space in Grand Rapids. “On top of having to pay attention to bullying and harassment, now we have to worry about COVID and masks.” 

The emo band Grappa drew in a full house at the Vine neighborhood venue Xanadu. Strzynski trailed off a bit, but followed up with how COVID safety is especially important for touring bands. “I don’t want to risk people’s tours getting canceled because of exposure, or risking anyone’s safety.” 

My friends and I attempted to see a show at the Glowhouse on the same night as one at The Runoff, but when we trudged up to the front porch in the first heavy snowfall of the season, we realized they were checking vaccination cards. Only two of us had our cards on us, so we were turned away. I attended a packed show later in the month at Xanadu to see emo band Grappa, and felt safe knowing that everyone inside was fully vaccinated. 

Given that I was going to these shows primarily for the purpose of research for this article, it was refreshing to see young folks take their precautions so seriously. Strzynski’s earnest manner of describing his job of keeping people safe at the shows came through as loud and clear as his love for what Kalamazoo house shows represent. 

“I’m not a religious person, but it is a blessing. Some people go to church, I go to house shows.” Says Strzynski. This sentiment was repeated through each of my interviews.

Local singer-songwriter Cameron Spencer, representing his solo act Cam the Cryptid, and quartet Very Gorgeous, sat down with me in his Vine neighborhood apartment one evening before I saw him perform an outdoor set at Nimblewill. We talked about what the Kalamazoo house show music scene does well. 

Lights at the Runoff, a venue in Milwood started by Garret Yates in the fall of 2021.“It makes room for ugly,” Spencer says, as he huddled under a blanket, staring intently at his houseplants. He talked about how when, auditioning for Western Michigan University’s elite jazz group Gold Company, he did not feel there was room for him. 

“I feel that in the Kzoo house show scene, there is room for me to make noise that isn’t pretty or fully realized. I could be a beginner and still have a place to share what I felt.”

Yates says that one of the reasons he decided to start The Runoff was to create exactly the type of space that Spencer described. When I asked Yates what Kalamazoo house shows get right, he talks about the inclusivity and the encouraging environment, and the set of rules and expectations of those attending the shows that is almost always visible at the venue. As his wife slid into view of the camera and settled in next to him on the couch, Yates explains that it can be hard for smaller bands to get gigs at bars or larger venues, and “those acts still deserve a place to play.” 

Yates' wife Rachel nudges him, and chimes in about the two’s plan to open a DIY music space in Kalamazoo that is not a house, but a building set aside specifically for shows supporting local acts. The drummer of Bronson Arm tells me that he and his wife are writing a business plan to open a venue that supports musicians, roller derby, possibly burlesque, and maybe even a liquor license. I was reminded of Strzynski who stressed he, “would like to see a non-house show DIY space, so there could be those weekday shows because then we wouldn’t need to be quiet.”
 
All three of the folks I spoke to were positive overall about what the Kalamazoo house show music scene has done well. However, Spencer, Yates, and Strzynski all agreed that the house show scene in Kalamazoo could do more in certain aspects. Spencer, the only Black person interviewed for this piece, told Second Wave, “As much room as there is for ugly, it is a specific type of ugly. It does not seem like it pertains to PoC (People of Color) or any genre that would be considered rap/hip-hop/RnB.” 

Do you think women are represented well?

Garret Yates and his wife Rachel want to open a DIY music space that will allow more flexibility than house show can provide.“No, unless they play first...” Spencer continues, dropping the blanket around his shoulder and sitting up straight, “Or like The First Responders who make a space for themselves, as in they have a venue in their house. Or if the women are surrounded by men, as in being in a band with a bunch of men or male presenting people.”

“I would love to see a PoC space, where I didn’t have to subvert parts of myself to feel included.” When he walks into a Kalamazoo house show basement, Spencer is often one of the only Black people there. He describes it as “exhausting.” We spoke about how diversifying the types of bands that play at the shows encourages a more diverse audience to feel welcome in the space.  

Yates and Strzynski echo parts of this when asked what the Kalamazoo scene could do better. Both of them spoke of a need for diverse booking, more hip hop, more country, more pop. A little more of anything. All three of the interviewees were happy to say that the sweaty, cold, intense, mellow, emotional, and raw tradition of Kalamazoo house shows seems to be returning with a new element, a thankfulness that it did not disappear. 

Musicians on social media

If you would like to find out more about the folks mentioned in this story and check out their social media and the various projects they are a part of. 

Cam the Cryptid: Instagram -- camgirl69xx_x, Bandcamp- camthecryptid.bandcamp.com 

The Runoff: Instagram -- therunoff_kz, bronson_arm_noise, Link Tree- linktr.ee/BronsonArm

Xanadu: Instagram -- xanadushowhouse 

The Glowhouse: Instagram -- theglowhousekalamazoo 

Motherhouse Music: Instagram -- motherhouse.music

Dynamic Sound Service Mastering: Instagram -- dynamicsoundservicer_mastering, dynamicsoundservice.com

Hemlock Media Co.: Instagram -- hemlockmedia.co

Mike Falling: Instagram -- mjfrecording

Waterloo: Instagram -- thewaterloocollective

Grappa -- Instagram: grappasux

 

Read more articles by Casey Grooten.

Casey Grooten is a Kalamazoo native who lived in the Vine and Stuart neighborhoods for over a decade and graduated from WMU with a Bachelors in English. Casey now lives in Jackson, Mich., and spends their free time making artwork and music. Casey is passionate about social justice and equity, transgender rights, community events, and the arts.