Vine Neighborhood

The evolution of Vine's vibrant underground music scene keeps Kalamazoo on the map

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.

A dozen years ago, Vine, known by locals as a student party zone, was also gaining a national reputation as a neighborhood with a thriving underground music scene.

While aboveground swarms of students and other young people partook in the usual weekend partying, belowground, literally in basements at venues known by such names as Deep Space Nine, Fat Guy’s House, or The Black Lodge, house bands and touring bands were rocking it despite challenging acoustics and primitive lighting. It was a thriving DIY punk rock scene that had its own set of ethics and guidelines. 

“There’s something really intimate about being in a basement with music and a bunch of people,” says Trey Marks, 26, vocalist and guitarist with the local band, The Krelboynes, who has been attending and performing at house shows for the past seven years. “People really care about the music. It feels homey because you’re in a home. It’s a nice way to interact with people and to support local bands and touring bands that people might not even know.”

Trey Marks of the Krelboynes performs aboveground at Shakespeare's Pub.
Over the years, Vine’s underground music, organized, hosted and often performed by the people who attended events, developed a special following of Vine residents and others who were drawn to watching live music where the veil between the performers and the audience is very thin. Typical shows feature four bands, one touring band usually from out of state for which donations are collected, and three local bands.

“I am biased, but I think Kalamazoo punches way above our weight class in the music scene,” says Jarad Selner, a local musician and former DIY house host. “There’s as much or more cool stuff happening in Kalamazoo as Chicago. And the quality of it is very high.”

Those who have attended or performed at house shows say it’s a venue like no other.  

“One of my favorite things about hosting these kinds of events and going to them is the whole grassroots aspect of it,” says Andy Argo, rapper and drummer of now-defunct band Sista Mista and former frequent house host. “We’re not relying on some promoter or some business space to get this art done. It’s literally a network of people. And there’s a national network everyone plugs into. The pure idea of being able to share art and music without a profit motive with other people—that’s the real sole purpose of it.”

From Punk Time to Indie Time

Over the years, a shift has occurred in Vine’s underground scene, part to do with an understanding that has been developed between neighbors, hosts, the police and the neighborhood association, part due to the change in the types of students who gravitate to Vine, and part due to the nature of the current generation of music lovers.

“It used to be there were a lot more party houses,” says Marks. “Now it’s like this is a legit show. We don’t party here.”

As cheaper, off-campus housing options with greater amenities opened up to local college students in the last few years and more families have located in Vine, “the whole stereotype of being a college party neighborhood dissipated over time,” says Argo, who is running for Kalamazoo City Commission. “The students who live here now have a more artsy constituency.”

Shows that used to start at midnight and end around 3 a.m., now start at 7:30 p.m. and end by 11:30 p.m., says Marks, adding with a laugh, “which is kind of a relief because I can go home and watch movies.”

Help support the touring bands is a rule for house concerts.The music has also gravitated away from punk and metal toward  “bedroom pop and indie rock, which is more laid back,” says Marks. Performances also include avant-garde, hip hop, acoustic, solo and other types of performance art, including spoken word. Some house shows even feature a visual artist.
“For some reason, this generation seems a little more introverted. They value closer relationships over random party relationships. It’s more of a close-knit community,” says Marks. “It’s always been close. You didn’t know people as well, but you would just party with them.”

Selner, who with his 10 housemates hosted more than 140 shows featuring at least 300 bands over a seven-year span at their venue, the Millhouse, was ahead of the curve in ensuring that the house shows were safe and respectful to neighbors. They followed DIY punk ethics, which were considered norms at the time. DIY guidelines for house concerts, including how to create a safe space, set up a successful show, and even be fragrance-free, continue to evolve.

“My house made sure (attendees) would know this was a performance, not a party,” says Selner. “We had house rules that we enforced: no smoking, no underage drinking, no homophobia, no violence, no hate speech.”

Originally a punk and metal scene, Vine's underground music now includes Indie, avante garde and hip hop, among others.Selner, a burly, ginger-haired and bearded saxophonist known as Saxsquatch who often performs with his group Bridge Band, says his house would notify neighbors before shows. In the many shows his house hosted over the years, Selner is proud to say the cops only showed up three times. 

“Kalamazoo is a weird, special place,” says Selner. “A harmony has been struck between the police force and the people who are throwing the shows, at least in the Vine neighborhood.

 “Going to a house show at least once is a cultural touchstone of the neighborhood,” says Selner, who is also on the VNA Board of Directors. “It truly is an artistic experience, a cultural experience, something that is valued and valuable, and something that is really cool about the neighborhood.”

Why Vine?

Vine, with its large historic houses, unfinished basements, deep lots and proximity to Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College, make it an ideal neighborhood to host underground music. Many of the bands are made up of college students who want an opportunity to jam. The bands transition quickly as students graduate and move out of the city. 

Other bands, however, stick around or move above ground, performing at local bars, churches, neighborhood events, Art Hops, and even the VNA office, which has hosted several performances.

“There are a lot of bands,” says Marks. “Kalamazoo is a really musical town. People are practicing in those basements anyway. So they think, ‘Let’s just throw a house show.’ Kalamazoo has that reputation, especially in Vine.”

How to know where to go?
For some obvious reasons, the address of house shows are not advertised, though the performers often are. For one thing, space is limited. For another, participants like things kept on the QT. The best way to find out about a show is word of mouth. “It’s got to be a little low key. If you want to go to a house show, you have to ask people who know what’s going on,” says Marks. “But it’s very accepting once you find your way into one.”

And if you have a band that needs a place to play, hosts are “pretty receptive to almost anyone, which is one thing you don’t get in other cities,” says Marks.

But if you go, Argo advises, donate to the touring band around which most shows are organized. “It takes a lot of hard work, time and money to put yourself out there and go on tour like that. It’s very important to provide that support.”

House spirit is growing inclusive and politically involved

Steve Walsh, Vine Neighborhood Association Director, and a supporter of the underground music scene since he first took the job 12 years ago, says he has observed the neighborhood’s music culture evolve in terms of types of music and diversity in organizers. Underground is not just for punk and metal anymore.

Vine saxophonist Jarad Selner (aka Saxsquatch) hosted 140 DIY house concerts with his 10 housemates over seven years.“The gatekeepers are no longer just your traditional white males that hold house shows,” says Walsh. “Now there are all sorts of nontraditional house venues that have their own norms that they are looking to support. It has progressed from, ‘Hey, we’re having a house party with a punk rock band,’ to maybe a house that is predominantly non-traditional, non-straight. There’s more room for different types of bands and talents and different demographics. That’s been neat to see.”

As different houses develop their unique characters (and names, which current hosts request not be shared), many are taking the DIY spirit and expanding it to education and community building, says Argo. “A lot of people are taking the initiative for providing programs to teach about technical issues, how to start a band or how to start an art space. There’s a lot more intention in the neighborhood towards making sure we foster a positive community. 

“A lot of the house shows around here are trying to experiment with the format. More shows these days are using the format as a way to spread awareness about an issue or to fundraise.”

Selner likes the variety he sees as many houses develop their own focus.

“Ten or 12 years ago, the vast majority of facilitators were straight, white men. Now there’s been a recent and very welcome influx of people of color, queer people, female-bodied people, and that’s wonderful and refreshing,” he says. “And it speaks to a scene that is constantly in flux, and consistently trying to grow and better itself. 

“There are people that throw shows that focus on cultivating specific spaces. And there are people that want to throw shows that just want to have a good time. And I think both are great. There’s space for everything.

“By punk rock standards, I’m a dinosaur at 31 this year. I’m just trying to do it the way I’ve always done it and I’m trying to get out of some people’s way so they can do what they want. There are shows that aren’t for me. If you want a show to be for you, just throw your own show.

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.